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Jeffrey Epstein prosecutor was previously rebuked for handling of a child sex case

Julie K. Brown, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

The judge promptly sentenced McDaniel to 10 years -- twice what Villafana recommended.

Three months later, in January 2007, after reviewing the entire case, Zloch issued an order excoriating Villafana for failing to tell him about McDaniel's prior history.

"The serial nature of defendant's seduction of minor girls was revealed for the first time to the court upon the Government's response to the Court's inquiry," Zloch wrote, explaining that the defendant's past was evidence of predatory behavior that warranted a harsher sentence because he may pose a danger to the community.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Lourie was assigned to try to correct the record and persuade the judge to strike a portion of his comments. They argued that since McDaniel had never before been charged with a crime, the history was not relevant at sentencing. The defendant's prior relationship with a 16-year-old was not illegal in Texas or in California, they said, and the girl classified her relationship as a friendship.

All the relevant information was provided to the probation department and at McDaniel's detention hearing, they added, making the point that it was in the record and, therefore, not intentionally withheld by the government.

While Zloch conceded that the information was part of the probation and bond hearing record, he said it was nevertheless the U.S. Attorney's Office's duty to present the defendant's prior history with minors at sentencing. He refused to strike the most critical portions of his order.

"Lack of candor to the court is a serious charge, and the judge has quite reasonably expressed dismay that the assistant U.S. attorney apparently intended that he never be given a full picture of the defendant's conduct," Hakes said.

But nine months later, in September 2007, Villafana was in the throes of thorny negotiations with Epstein's lawyers. While an FBI investigation was ongoing, Villafana discussed ways to quietly resolve the case, emails show.

A Miami Herald investigation, "Perversion of Justice," published in November, revealed how federal prosecutors, including Acosta and Villafana, tried to keep the full scope of Epstein's crimes out of the public eye. At one point, they discussed charging Epstein in Miami, instead of Palm Beach County, where the crimes happened, noting there would be less media coverage.

Emails also show that prosecutors repeatedly abided by Epstein's lawyers' demands that his victims not be told that an agreement had been reached until after he was sentenced. That meant that the girls could not appear at a hearing to derail finalizing of the deal. Prosecutors had drafted a 53-page federal indictment on sex trafficking charges, but Acosta instead allowed Epstein to plead guilty to two prostitution charges in state court. In exchange, Epstein and his co-conspirators were given federal immunity.

Villafana wrote Epstein lawyer Jay Lefkowitz to discuss the wording of the sentencing agreement for the judge:

"I will include all our standard language regarding resolving all criminal liability and I will mention co-conspirators, but I would prefer not to highlight for the judge all of the other crimes and all the other persons we could charge," Villafana wrote.

At Epstein's sentencing, Palm Beach County prosecutor Lanna Belohlavek was questioned by the judge about whether all of Epstein's victims were told about the deal, as required by law.

"Are there more than one victim?" Circuit Court Judge Deborah Dale Pucillo asked Belohlavek at the June 30, 2008, sentencing.

 

"There's several," Belohlavek replied.

"Are all the victims in both these cases in agreement with the terms of the plea?" the judge asked.

"Yes," Belohlavek said.

Coincidentally, the lawyer representing one of the victims was in the courtroom that day. He told the Herald that neither he nor his client was told about the agreement.

Acosta has not responded to the Herald's repeated requests for comment. A spokesman at the Labor Department told The Washington Post last month: "The office's decisions were approved by departmental leadership and followed departmental procedures."

In the past, Acosta has said that he believed the deal was the best chance prosecutors had of ensuring that Epstein spent some time behind bars and was required to register as a sex offender. Epstein served 13 months in the Palm Beach County jail -- but he was allowed to leave for up to 12 hours a day as part of a work release program not normally offered to convicted sex offenders.

Epstein's victims, now in their late 20s and 30s, are fighting to have his deal overturned and Epstein sent to prison.

Bradley Edwards, who represents several of Epstein's victims, defended Villafana, saying he believed that she was directed to settle the case and not inform Epstein's victims about the deal.

"In my conversations with her, I came to believe that she was in a difficult position. She never came out and said this, but I suspected that someone above her directed her to do what she did," Edwards said.

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