Allegations that billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein sought and paid underage girls for sex were an open secret for more than a decade, but his legal battles seemed over after he reached a 2008 deal in Florida to serve a 13-month jail sentence and register as a sex offender.
That changed Monday when federal prosecutors charged the former hedge fund manager with sex trafficking, and he might have the Miami Herald to thank for it.
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“We were assisted by some excellent investigative journalism,” Geoffrey Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said Monday at a news conference to announce the charges.
The Herald’s managing editor, Rick Hirsch, told POLITICO that his paper’s November series, “Perversion of Justice,” advanced the Epstein story by giving “victims a voice” and that the effects were being seen now.
In the series, reporter Julie K. Brown got women to speak for the first time on the record about Epstein’s alleged “cult-like network of underage girls.” She also explored the role of Alex Acosta, who was the U.S. attorney in Miami in 2008 and is now the U.S. Labor secretary, in the deal with Epstein.
“Julie tackled this project because she thought there were questions about whether justice was done, and it’s really had an impact,” Hirsch said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Berman’s comments at the news conference — which came in response to a question about whether prosecutors had obtained new information about Epstein, who pleaded not guilty — prompted a round of celebrations from journalists. But they also renewed questions about why the allegations against the financier, who has counted presidents Donald Trump and Bill Clinton as friends, were not deeply investigated much earlier.
The case has drawn comparisons to that of filmmaker Harvey Weinstein, whose alleged abuse of women was rumored for years before new revelations in The New York Times and The New Yorker led to criminal charges.
Journalist Vicky Ward tweeted on Monday that a 2003 Vanity Fair profile she wrote about Epstein was “far from the whole story,” claiming that the publication’s editor at the time, Graydon Carter, cut out first-person accounts of Epstein’s treatment of women from a mother and her two daughters.
Ward made the same claim in 2015, prompting a Vanity Fair spokesperson to note that “Epstein denied the charges at the time” and that the claims “were unsubstantiated and no criminal investigation had been initiated.” Vanity Fair declined to comment on Monday.
Carter said in a statement on Monday that editors at the magazine viewed Ward’s reporting as less bulletproof than her tweets indicated.
“In the end, we didn’t have confidence in Ward’s reporting,” said Carter, who left Vanity Fair in 2017. “We were not in the habit of running away from a fight. But she simply didn’t have the goods.”
Some news organizations, notably the now-shuttered Gawker, did keep plugging away with Epstein stories, even as he receded from headlines at most outlets.
Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, the Herald’s executive editor, said in a CNN interview that Brown’s investigation of Epstein last year stemmed from reporting on women’s prisons and human trafficking. “Jeffrey Epstein’s name kept coming up again and again,” Gonzalez said.
While Brown’s November story brought Epstein back into the spotlight, there wasn’t immediate fallout. Brown told CNN she continued pursuing the story so that law enforcement and government officials wouldn’t “forget that these women were out there. … They want to tell their story, and they want justice.” She posted on Twitter on Sunday, as reports emerged of the coming charges, that the “REAL HEROES” of her story were the women speaking out.
Colleagues and competitors, meanwhile, have been lauding Brown’s reporting and suggesting she win a Pulitzer Prize. Her 2018 reporting on Epstein was honored earlier this year with a Polk Award, one of journalism’s highest honors, but she wasn’t even a finalist for a Pulitzer.
The Herald’s reporting appeared to be a contender for the investigative reporting and local journalism prizes. USA Today’s national investigations editor, Matt Doig, and The Denver Post’s editor, Lee Ann Colacioppo, who led the groups that vetted stories in those categories, both told POLITICO that there were strong entries from other news organizations.
“The fact that this piece from Miami wasn’t a finalist just speaks to the incredible work being done at newspapers throughout the country — even under the tremendous stresses that newspapers are feeling,” Colacioppo said.
She said “there were no outside pressures” on that decision, despite an April letter from Alan Dershowitz, a former Epstein lawyer, urging the Pulitzer judges not to reward what he called Brown’s “fake news.”
Doig said the Herald “should be commended for what it did,” while noting that other standout entries “should also be rewarded.”
Hirsch, the Herald editor, said he respected the Pulitzer process during “a very strong year for journalism.”
And, he said, “I think what’s happening in the last few days is a lot more important.”