This article was updated July 17, 2019.
Mr. Rogers used to tell children who felt scared or vulnerable to “look for the helpers.” If he were alive today to see the long-overdue indictment of Jeffrey Epstein, he might offer this advice to federal prosecutors: “Look for the enablers.”
Billionaire Jeffrey Epstein is alleged to have sexually abused and trafficked both children and young adults for decades, luring countless girls to his various mansions. There, they were told to take off all or most of their clothes and massage Epstein, an act that would often end in sexual assault. His victims were well-chosen to be among the most powerless and vulnerable, ensuring that they would silently endure abuse by this wealthy man.
But Jeffrey Epstein did not successfully engage in this depraved behavior for so long because he is rich. He escaped justice because he had enablers, both powerless and powerful.
The July 8th indictment by the Southern District of New York described Epstein’s network of victim-recruiters, “massage” schedulers, assistants, and others who ensured that his needs were met. These individuals were all complicit in securing young girls and women for his sexual gratification, although most of these enablers were also likely powerless. Since the indictment, a search of his New York mansion revealed a fake passport and significant amounts of cash and diamonds. None of this could be secured by Epstein alone.
Whether this network of assistance rises to the level of criminality will be up to the federal prosecutors. The larger question is whether any of Epstein’s rich and powerful cadre of supporters and defenders will also be held accountable. Without them, it is likely that Epstein would have long ago faced federal prosecution.
An FBI investigation concluded in 2007 that Epstein was inducing girls to engage in illegal sexual activities. The office of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida entered into clandestine negotiations with Epstein’s high-profile lawyers, resulting in a non-prosecution agreement that was breathtaking in its scope, leniency, and even illegality for its failure to notify the victims. That office was led by Alex Acosta, who only recently resigned as the Secretary of Labor in response to the outcry over the Epstein deal.
A particularly unique aspect of the plea deal is that it protected Epstein’s enablers from further prosecution. The arrangement granted immunity not only to Epstein, but to named and unnamed co-conspirators. Normally plea deals result in information that leads to someone else’s prosecution. Not here, however. The man accused of the crime successfully prevailed upon those negotiating on behalf of the federal government, including Acosta, to agree that they would not prosecute anyone associated with Epstein’s alleged trafficking.
Acosta’s recent efforts to paint himself as the hero of the story, stepping in to ensure Epstein served time in jail, was both beyond belief and belied the facts. It has been long-reported that Acosta’s office had developed a 53-page indictment against Epstein that they chose not pursue, settling instead for a sentence that was indefensible in its leniency.
It should not be lost that Acosta, as Secretary of Labor, had a key role in combatting human trafficking. And one of the first actions of Secretary Acosta’s new Division Chief was to first block and then add hurdles to a program that was created to assist illegally trafficked immigrants and help facilitate their cooperation with law enforcement.
And now it is being reported that Epstein continued to have access to young women while serving his sentence — most of which was time served on work-release in his Palm Beach office. What network was required to bring these women to Epstein?
Enablers do not shed their tendencies to support the powerful over the powerless.
Articles about Jeffrey Epstein frequently highlight the wealth, influence, and power of his friends and social circle. Accounts of Epstein’s legal fight before the non-prosecution agreement was reached describe his team’s “fear and intimidation” of victims and a “ferocious, protracted campaign to undermine the prosecution.”
Moreover, others involved in that earlier plea deal on behalf of Epstein have themselves faced accusations of engaging in illicit acts. Epstein may have had a particularly pernicious role in facilitating these behaviors, as it has been reported that he would record important people engaging in indecent acts through concealed cameras on his property.
Perpetrators of egregious behaviors frequently rely upon others to create a protective cocoon around them, and Epstein has been no different. He has been particularly successful because wealth and privileged status always draw in enablers, beguiled by the private jets, yachts, mansions, and parties for A-listers-only. Sometimes enablers may assume that role to protect themselves. Whatever the motivation, the result is that victims become invisible and even law enforcement may more easily capitulate to their demands.
Whether Epstein will finally face a jury as a result of his behaviors remains to be seen. If the victims are to truly be served by the justice system, the enablers must also be held to account.
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Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, is the author of the newly released book, The Shield of Silence: How Power Perpetuates a Culture of Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace.