Florida lawmaker: Look into Epstein work release from jail

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In this courtroom sketch, defendant Jeffrey Epstein, second from right, listens along with defense attorneys, from left, Marc Fernich, Michael Miller, and Martin Weinberg as Judge Richard M. Berman denies him bail during a hearing in federal court, Thursday, July 18, 2019 in New York. Judge Berman denied bail for the jailed financier on sex trafficking charges, saying the danger to the community that would result if the jet-setting defendant was free formed the “heart of this decision.” (Aggie Kenny via AP)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A Florida lawmaker known as a champion for child sexual abuse victims asked Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday to authorize a state investigation into the circumstances of wealthy convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s freedom to leave jail on work release a decade ago.

Democratic state Sen. Lauren Book said in a letter Tuesday that the Republican governor should order a Florida Department of Law Enforcement inquiry into how the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office handled the case. Sheriff Ric Bradshaw announced last week that his office would internally investigate Epstein’s time at the county jail, but Book said that’s not enough.

“When an atrocity occurs in our state and there is a breakdown involving law enforcement, I believe it is appropriate for FDLE to step in and investigate,” Book wrote to DeSantis. “If Epstein was able to abuse young girls while under supervised work release, we need to understand very clearly when and how these egregious lapses and abuses occurred so they cannot be repeated.”

Under a 2008 plea deal, Epstein was allowed out on work release 12 hours a day, six days a week, while completing a 13-month sentence on prostitution-related charges involving underage girls. Epstein also was required in the state case to register as a sex offender and pay restitution to many of his victims.

Brad Edwards, a lawyer for several of the accusers, has said he was in contact with a woman who had “sexual contact” with Epstein in the sex offender’s office while he was still serving his sentence. Epstein’s lawyers did not respond to numerous emails requesting comment on this allegation.

The 2008 deal also included a federal non-prosecution agreement that spared Epstein from far more serious federal charges involving dozens of young girls at the time. A Miami Herald investigation of the case this year prompted a groundswell of criticism that led to the resignation of President Donald Trump’s labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, who was Miami U.S. attorney when the Epstein deal was struck.

Two of Epstein’s accusers who successfully argued that victims’ rights were violated because they were not consulted about the secret plea deal called anew Tuesday in a 70-page court filing for it to be thrown out. That could potentially open Epstein to federal prosecution again in Florida.

Epstein, now 66, faces new federal sex trafficking charges in New York and has pleaded not guilty. In a filing made public Tuesday, Epstein wants the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan to reverse U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman’s conclusion that he remain jailed because he is a danger to the community and a flight risk partly because of his great wealth.

DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment Tuesday. Bradshaw’s office issued a statement saying he “shares Senator Book’s concerns” and that was the reason for the internal investigation of Epstein’s work-release arrangement.

In the Florida case, Epstein spent most of his days at his office once he qualified for work release, according to Palm Beach County sheriff’s records. The terms allowed him to be out of jail from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., six days a week, but records show that on some occasions his personal limousine dropped him off as early as 7:15 a.m. or picked up as late as 10:40 p.m.

Sex offenders are now banned from participating in the county’s work release program, but apparently were not in 2008, according to a copy of the rules at the time.

One deputy assigned to guard Epstein at his office for several days, Jeffrey Rice, told The Associated Press that he recalled young women visiting, but couldn’t say whether there was any inappropriate contact because he was stationed in the lobby, with two doors between himself and Epstein’s private office.

Book, the Florida senator, was sexually abused by a nanny as a child and has created a charity, Lauren’s Kids, that pushes for stronger prison sentences for sex offenders. She has written books on the subject and put together a curriculum about sex abuse for Florida kindergartners. Book also served on a state commission investigating the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

In her letter, Book said the state investigation is necessary for full accountability.

“If true, this shows yet another breakdown of the system’s dealing with this pedophilic abuser,” Book wrote.

Lawyers for Epstein say he has stayed clean since pleading guilty in the Florida case. They have argued that with the current charges, the federal government is reneging on its non-prosecution promise. They asked that he be allowed to remain in his $77 million Manhattan mansion, where a raid the day of his arrest produced hundreds of sexually suggestive photographs of nude underage and adult females.

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Associated Press writer Lawrence Neumeister in New York contributed to this story.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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