SALT LAKE CITY — As billionaire Jeffrey Epstein faces new sex trafficking charges in New York, a Utah attorney is continuing a longtime legal push toward similar prosecution of the hedge fund manager in Florida.
Paul Cassell, an expert in victims rights, represents two women who said Epstein abused them there when they were underage. The pair sued in federal court in 2008, contending a secret nonprosecution agreement violated federal law because they were not consulted. A judge agreed in February.
Now, Cassell and other Florida-based attorneys for the women argue the deal should no longer be valid. They argue that portions granting immunity from federal charges to Epstein and others accused of conspiring with him should be tossed.
"I think it's really troubling that the U.S. Attorney's Office worked together with a criminal to keep the victims in the dark about what was going on," said Cassell, a former federal judge and prosecutor who now teaches law at the University of Utah. "And that's why we've been fighting for such a long time, more than a decade now, to get justice for these victims, and to have them get that guaranteed right to confer with prosecutors about what should happen."
Federal prosecutors recently countered in court filings the deal must stand.
According to court records in Florida, authorities say at least 40 underage girls were brought into Epstein's Palm Beach mansion for sexual encounters after being recruited around the world.
After signing the agreement promising immunity to Epstein and others he knew, the state told the women their cases were still being investigated, Cassell said.
The deal allowed Epstein to maintain his jet-set lifestyle that includes a Bentley and homes in Paris and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he owns an island. Under the once-secret deal — overseen by Alexander Acosta, who was the U.S. attorney in Miami at the time and is now Trump's labor secretary — Epstein pleaded guilty to state charges of soliciting a minor for prostitution.
He avoided a possible life sentence and served 13 months in jail, during which he was allowed out to go to his office during the day. The deal also required that he reach financial settlements with dozens of his alleged victims and register as a sex offender.
I think society is now starting to understand that these kinds of crimes are not something where you can blame the victim or sweep them under the rug. – Paul Cassell
Acosta has defended the agreement as appropriate, though the White House has said it was looking into his handling of the case.
Epstein's Saturday arrest came amid increased #MeToo-era scrutiny of the deal.
"I think society is now starting to understand that these kinds of crimes are not something where you can blame the victim or sweep them under the rug," Cassell said. "Instead, they're sex offenses committed against children that need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
His clients, referenced in court documents as Jane Does 1 and 2, are now in their late 20s or early 30s. One of the women, Courtney Wild, has come forward publicly. She cheered Epstein's arrest in an interview with ABC News.
"Knowing he's off the streets and so many girls who would be in danger are now safe makes me so happy," she said.
The women are also seeking the release of details on how the deal was arranged and are pursuing a hearing where they can address the judge, the prosecutors who misled them and Epstein.
"This case raises real questions about the role of wealth and power in our society, and whether there are certain people who are above the law," Cassell said. "The good news is that we've seen now from today's action in New York, that even Jeffrey Epstein is not above the law. And we're hoping to show that he's not above the law in Florida as well."
Epstein, 66, pleaded not guilty on Monday in New York, where prosecutors say he created a "vast network of underage victims for him to sexually exploit in locations including New York and Palm Beach" and paid some of them to recruit additional victims. He is accused of paying underage girls hundreds of dollars in cash for massages and then molesting them at his homes in Florida and New York from 2002 through 2005.
His lawyers argued that the matter had been settled with the 2008 plea agreement in Florida.
Some of Epstein's alleged victims have accused Prince Andrew and former Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz with taking part in Epstein's sex ring, allegations they have denied.
Contributing: Associated Press