By David Von Drehle

The Washington Post

Let’s separate the dramatic from the significant in the arrest and jailing of Jeffrey Epstein, mysterious multimillionaire, erstwhile friend of presidents and princes, registered sex offender.

Dramatic was the image of federal agents greeting Epstein’s private jet at Teterboro Airport, the taxiway of moguls and stars, to bundle the old goat off to the hoosegow. Equally cinematic was the nearly simultaneous scene of lawmen taking a crowbar to the towering wooden doors of Epstein’s Manhattan mansion.

Significant, on the other hand, was the safe found somewhere behind the splintered doors.

You see, while much has been written about the cushy and secretive plea bargain that spared Epstein what might have been a very long stay in prison for the alleged sexual abuse of teenage girls, one aspect of that agreement has been largely overlooked. Epstein agreed not to contest lawsuits filed by his victims. In the ensuing years, he reached untold dozens of settlements with women who were as young as 14 when he drew them into what has been called his sexual Ponzi scheme. In exchange for Epstein’s money, the women agreed to release him from any further responsibility for offenses against them “from the beginning of the world to the day of this release.”

(A rare instance of quotable legalese.)

To Epstein’s attorneys, those settlements armor their client against further prosecution. He has been charged in a new jurisdiction, New York instead of South Florida. He has been charged with a new crime, trafficking rather than solicitation. But the underlying behavior is the same skeevy stuff he papered over with payouts. Last week’s drama is bringing out new, previously unknown allegations, but so far the main witnesses may be muted.

This is not exactly a bulletproof strategy. Just how much protection the settlements provide is up to the courts to say. But it’s the best available strategy — and here’s where the safe becomes significant.

All the millions that Epstein has paid out in settlements offer zero protection against prosecution for subsequent crimes. Locked inside that safe, according to investigators, were “hundreds, and perhaps thousands” of sexually suggestive photographs of young women, and at least some appeared to be minors. With that discovery, Epstein’s defense came crashing down.

Under federal law, it is illegal simply to possess any such pictures of anyone under the age of 18. “Transporting” such pictures “in interstate or foreign commerce” is punishable by up to 20 years in prison for a first offense. And get this: simply by downloading his photos onto a compact disc manufactured overseas, which prosecutors say was labeled “girl pics nude”, Epstein likely satisfied the “foreign commerce” clause.

Of course, Epstein is not a first-timer. Penalties are more severe for a registered sex offender who possesses child pornography. And if Epstein was the photographer, or conspired with the photographer, or paid the photographer, he is in deeper trouble still. The reported contents of his safe strongly suggest that the 66-year-old Epstein will spend the rest of his life behind bars, despite those dozens of settlement agreements.

Significant.

But let’s stick with that safe and its contents a little longer. Suppose Epstein claims, as exploiters of teens so often do, that he thought the “nude” “girls” in the “pics” were of legal age. Doing so would open the door to rebuttal testimony from his victims, settlements or no. Indeed, all the details cloaked by the settlements might be judged relevant to Epstein’s subsequent possession of those pictures.

And by the way: If he believed the photos to be legal, why lock them away? Safes are for secrets.

I imagine Epstein’s legal team must wonder if the crowbar-wielding feds knew in advance what they were going to find. In other words: Did they have an informant from Epstein’s inner circle who told them to look in the safe? It’s not hard to imagine his people starting to turn on him; the heat under Epstein has been rising for months, starting with an expose of the shameful plea bargain by Julie K. Brown of the Miami Herald.

And it’s only going to get hotter. The federal appeals court in New York recently decided to unseal nearly the entire record of a settled lawsuit involving the British heiress Ghislaine Maxwell and her alleged role in Epstein’s purported crimes. When released, those documents will add fuel to the media firestorm touched off by the tarmac arrest.

Stealth alone made the sweetheart deal possible. In fact, a court recently ruled that prosecutors broke the law by hiding the agreement from Epstein’s victims. But there’s no hiding from the glare of a full-on New York scandal.

As for Epstein’s pals — the politicians and movie stars, the plutocrats and professors who traveled or partied with him and his seemingly endless company of young companions — no doubt some of them are sweating, too. Trying to recall if the cameras were ever pointed at them. Wondering if their secrets were inside that safe.

— David Von Drehle is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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