When rich people are credibly accused of crimes, does the public have a right to know? Should multimillionaires be allowed to silence their accusers with cash?
According to superlawyer David Boies, “dozens” of women who could give testimony about being sexually assaulted as girls by mysterious financier Jeffrey Epstein are silenced by settlements they reached with their alleged assailant. The exact number is yet another secret in this least transparent of criminal cases. “Three dozen or eight dozen, I don’t know, but there are dozens,” Boies told me recently. He himself represents two alleged Epstein victims bound by “non-disclosure agreements” (NDAs).
Because Epstein can afford to buy silence, he may succeed in shuttering the window of accountability pried open in a South Florida court back in February. U.S. District Judge Kenneth A. Marra ruled that federal prosecutors — led by the current labor secretary, Alexander Acosta — broke the law by entering a secret sweetheart deal to allow Epstein to serve a cushy sentence without facing evidence that he assaulted more than 30 underage girls in Palm Beach.
That ruling may prove hollow, however, if the alleged victims are now gagged by their settlements with Epstein. What a galling next chapter that would be in this appalling story.
Epstein, whose enormous and unexplained wealth attracted a circle of friends that included Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, actor Kevin Spacey and Britain’s Prince Andrew, travels from mansion to mansion while poor men accused of lesser crimes rot in prison.
This scandal of secrecy points to a creeping rot in the American justice system. Too many cases involving potential felonies are resolved through civil settlements that include ironclad NDAs. Once the money changes hands, witnesses can no longer testify to crimes; indeed, penalties for telling the truth after a settlement often run to the millions of dollars — ruinous for most crime victims. It’s a short step removed from silencing witnesses with cement shoes.
“It is a classic case of rich man’s justice,” said Boies. Add the fact that wealthy predators often target victims in financial need. That was allegedly Epstein’s M.O. as he sent recruiters into working-class neighborhoods in search of teenagers to give him “massages.” The rich exploit the poverty of their victims to extract promises of silence — backed by the force of law because the NDAs are binding contracts.
What’s needed is a simple change to the law, Boies contends: “Simply say that agreements to conceal evidence of a crime are not enforceable.”
The Epstein case is particularly creepy but not unique. The #MeToo movement has revealed the pernicious misuse of NDAs to enable crime. Powerful men such as producer Harvey Weinstein and television executive Leslie Moonves reportedly made use of the agreements to hide evidence of sexual assault or harassment. This secrecy in turn allowed offenders to target additional victims.