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Frank writes: "Jeffrey Epstein's enablers weren't a handful of Palm Beach rogues."

Jeffery Epstein. (photo: Rick Friedman/Getty)
Jeffery Epstein. (photo: Rick Friedman/Getty)

Jeffrey Epstein and the Decline of the American Experiment

By T.A. Frank, Vanity Fair

05 December 18

Epstein’s enablers weren’t a handful of Palm Beach rogues. Instead, the higher up the chain you went, the more sympathetic to Epstein the players seem to become. How did our smart set get this bad?

aybe a good secretary of labor is just hard to find. Either your nominee is opposed by most of Washington, or he’s cutting sweetheart deals with a sexual predator. O.K., I’ll admit that’s a cheap crack, but I offer it as a news peg, as they say in the business, the same peg that The Miami Herald used in unveiling a remarkable investigative series led by reporter Julie K. Brown. It showed how, a decade ago, a billionaire pedophile was able to use his wealth and connections to escape any semblance of a just punishment. One of the people who allowed the billionaire to skate was Alexander Acosta, currently secretary of labor, then a U.S. attorney for Southern Florida. But, really, Acosta was just one of many ugly players. Brown lays out in detail how the whole system shielded the billionaire from the gravity of his crimes. That its functionaries felt compelled to do so says a lot about our ruling elites. It’s enough to make you pine for Robespierre. But perhaps there’s more to be said than that.

According to the Herald, the basic story is this: Jeffrey Epstein is a billionaire financier who is said to own the largest residence in Manhattan, plus a Palm Beach mansion, New Mexico ranch, and Caribbean island. He is also a sexual pervert who, until about 12 years ago, preyed serially on teenage children, roughly until they reached the age of consent and became, in his eyes, unattractive. Because of an insatiable appetite for variety, he paid his victims to recruit even newer victims, and on and on in a chain that linked scores and scores of kids. What did authorities do when they found out, back in 2005? They spent a couple of years investigating and drawing up an indictment, then proceeded to quash further investigation, cooperated with Epstein’s lawyers to avoid publicity, violated procedures about plea bargains, made Epstein serve only 13 months in confinement, put him in the county jail rather than state prison, allowed him to leave jail and go to his office for 12 hours a day, raised no objection to him hiring sheriff’s deputies from the jail to guard him outside of the jail, and concealed most of the terms of the settlement from the public and the victims themselves. (On Monday, Epstein settled a related civil lawsuit and agreed to a financial settlement with many of his victims, again avoiding a public trial.)

Now for the bad part. Epstein’s enablers weren’t a handful of Palm Beach rogues. (On the contrary, among the few heroes of the story were Palm Beach police chief Michael Reiter and the late detective Joseph Recarey.) Instead, the higher up the chain you went, the more sympathetic to Epstein the players seem to become. It was U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta who helped cut short the investigation and his lead prosecutor, A. Marie Villafaña, who e-mailed Epstein’s lawyers, “I can file the charge in district court in Miami which will hopefully cut the press coverage significantly. Do you want to check that out?’’ It was a prosecutor from Cyrus Vance Jr.’s office in Manhattan who pleaded before an incredulous judge to downgrade Epstein’s sex-offender status. Those who came to Epstein’s legal aid included Alan Dershowitz (who says he’s still offering advice to Epstein) and Ken Starr—yes that same Ken Starr. The man who once pursued a president for concealing an affair with a 22-year-old was now helping Epstein outsmart those pursuing him over the sexual abuse of 14-year-olds.

Before the trouble hit, big shots loved Epstein. As a 2003 profile by Vicky Ward in Vanity Fair revealed, he was friendly, and sometimes entwined, with people like Larry Summers, Mort Zuckerman, Lewis Ranieri, Ronald Perelman, Tom Pritzker, Prince Andrew, Bill Clinton, and Florida neighbor Donald Trump. He had perches on the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, the New York Academy of Sciences, and the Institute of International Education. In 2002, he offered a Boeing 727 on things like humanitarian trips to Africa with Chris Tucker, Kevin Spacey, Bill Clinton, and Ron Burkle. Clinton took at least a dozen flights on Epstein’s plane, perhaps closer to two dozen, ditching his Secret Service for at least a few of them. In 2003, Epstein donated $6.5 million to Harvard, when Summers was still president, in support of a program to be headed up by his friend Martin Nowak, a mathematical biologist. (Nowak told Ward about visiting Epstein’s island lair and the two men having three-hour sunrise conversations about theoretical physics. “Then,” Nowak said, “he’ll go off and do some work, reappear, and we’ll talk some more.” All work and no play?)

Who among these visitors knew what about Epstein’s sexual subjugation of high-school girls? Let me avoid threats from lawyers and just say that, regardless of the answer, Epstein lost fewer friends than you’d think, not to mention very little of his fortune. In 2010, having long since served his time, Epstein was hosting Katie Couric, George Stephanopoulos, Chelsea Handler, and Woody Allen for dinner. “I plead guilty to making a deal that was favorable to my client,” said Dershowitz in 2015. “That’s my job.” Or, as Ken Starr offered in the same year, “I was very happy to respond to the needs of a client of the firm.” Theoretical physicist and professor Lawrence Krauss was even more supportive of Epstein. “As a scientist I always judge things on empirical evidence,” Krauss told Alexandra Wolfe in the Daily Beast. “And he always has women ages 19 to 23 around him, but I’ve never seen anything else.” Unfortunately, some women have found Krauss’s empiricism too exacting, at least when it came to uninvited evaluations of their bosoms. Krauss has agreed to retire from Arizona State University next May, in the wake of allegations—which he has denied—of sexual misconduct.

One must ask how our smart set could get this bad. It is a minor miracle of degeneration. When Alfred Sloan ran General Motors in the 1940s, he dined in the office cafeteria. On his weekly business trips to Detroit, he slept in a cubicle in a dormitory in the G.M. building. On commutes between New York and Detroit, he traveled in a railway-car roomette among other roomettes. Our leading executives had plenty of flaws, but a lack of ostentation and at least minimal sense of public spirit seemed to prevail among them. Not so today. Business today often seems more like a bunch of sociopaths on the right side of the bell curve bilking those on the left. It’s Trump University all the way down. Ward’s article showed that Epstein rose to riches in part by tethering himself to a Ponzi schemer, and Epstein must have learned something from the business model. After all, what his victims could earn from sex was small in comparison to what they could earn as procurers of new victims.

Nothing destroys cooperation and good will like a sense of pervasive unfairness, but the problem has gotten only worse in American life. (Barack Obama had a chance to clean the slate in the financial crises of 2008 and 2009, but, fatefully, it demanded more backbone or daring than he could muster.) People know this is a country in which a mom and can serve her kids alcohol at a party at home, to keep them there for the night, with no one hurt, and serve over two years in prison. It’s where a naïve teen who gave out the number of a drug-dealing boyfriend to a caller could be sentenced to 10 years. It’s a place where Cyrus Vance Jr.’s prosecutors can act like a public defender for Jeffrey Epstein while throwing the book at New York’s poor. It’s a place where, of Epstein’s associates who helped make his crimes possible, none were prosecuted, save one. That was a butler who tried to turn over a so-called “black book” documenting names and dates of Epstein’s escapades to a lawyer for the victims in exchange for $50,000. For this, the butler wound up serving an 18-month sentence, longer than that of his boss.

All of this is enough to turn some of us into tricoteuses, eagerly picturing a tumbrel of Davos panelists on its way to the Place de la Concorde. But history has some harsh lessons for revolutionaries. It also has only bad reviews for drain-the-swamp movements or Maoist-stye “anti-corruption drives,” because governing by campaigns rather than law makes things even worse. (If #MeToo has a vulnerability, it is that its nature as a mass movement has supplanted the formation of something consistent and systematic.) It’s mighty unsatisfying to say, but steady, boring structural amelioration, plus insistence on equality under the law, is probably our best hope. We could start by making sure rich crooks go to jail when they commit crimes. If we felt more ambitious, we could also make a habit of examining all our policymaking, whether in education or immigration or regulation, with an eye to its effects on social trust—so hard won, so easily lost. It might allow us to produce elites worthier of their positions, and tomorrow’s Americans could regain some of what today’s have squandered. But, boy, have we left them a lot to clean up.

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+10 # jwb110 2018-12-06 00:48
This is nothing new. My grandmother was born in 1900. I was a little kid when she said to me, "The only thing you need to know about life in America is that rich people don't pay for their crimes". 100+ years later and the same holds true. What a sham this country has become. Unless something really changes, what a sham it will be in the future.
+7 # elizabethblock 2018-12-06 09:43
I'm a Harvard grad, and of course Harvard sends me schnorr sheets. [A phrase invented years ago by an old friend. A schnorrer is a beggar in Yiddish. A schnorr sheet is a request for a donation. Feel free to adopt the expression.]
I shall tell them no - you get money from Saudi princes and Jeffrey Epstein, you don't need money from me.
+5 # chrisconno 2018-12-06 13:48
And I'll bet all those filthy rich crooks and molesters claim to be 'christians,' 'followers of Jesus'. We glorify the raunchiest of hypocrites and jail and ostracize the decent courageous folks. Yeah we sure have come a long way baby.
+1 # economagic 2018-12-06 21:57
Yes, and they read their Old Testament selectively, and their New Testament apparently not at all.

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