I was sitting just a few yards away from Jeffrey Epstein as he sat with his defense counsel in Federal Court on July 8. His demeanor was more like an American Express Black Card member frustrated by a flight cancelation than a man facing sex trafficking charges that could put him away for 15 years.
This article first appeared in Salon.
His visage communicated condescending disregard: Clearly these earthlings who were impeding his jet-set trajectory just had no idea who they were dealing with and once he managed to overcome their very limited intelligence he would surely be on his first-class way.
And why not? As a 66-year-old white man in that class of unlimited material means, with all the attendant accouterment, he exists in a world where there is no standing in line.
Evidently, the only lines that formed in Epstein’s world were the female children he paid to victimize and the toadies who craved close proximity to the wealth and power he exuded.
Add millions and stir
By throwing millions of dollars at the legal system, Epstein successfully enlisted Alex Acosta, a sitting U.S. Attorney who just resigned as Trump’s Labor Secretary, to grant the admitted sex offender a non-prosecution and an immunity agreement.
That deal, that a federal judge has since ruled illegal, helped conceal a vast child-sex trafficking operation that targeted vulnerable minors by offering them $300 and then employed a kind of pyramid scheme where victims were recruited to find new victims.
For decades now, as a general assignment reporter, I have had front row seats for a procession of these kinds of defendants. I have seen the likes of Epstein before.
Over my life as a journalist, as the whirlwind of wealth concentration stripped so many threadbare, these guys have prospered on an unprecedented scale. In our era of late-stage vulture-capitalism, it is these most ruthless predators that are elevated before their fall by our corporate media as living deities.
The elevation of Donald Trump to the Presidency marks the high-water mark for this underworld crew who masterfully play the compliant corporate media that’s transfixed by great wealth and confer upon those that hold it all sorts of intellectual prowess so as to cultivate proximity to them.
As we saw in the Federal prosecution and conviction of Michael Cohen for his role in facilitating the payoff of Stormy Daniels, Trump knows everybody has a price.
These great white men are their own law. They see themselves as the smartest guys in the room. They have the cunning to know how to hollow out others so that they can own their souls. With the precision of an acupuncturist, they pinpoint that pressure point that’s the nexus of desire, sexual pleasure or ambition.
These must be done with sleight of hand but even if you are caught red-handed, as long as you have high priced representation on retainer, you can outmaneuver prosecutors.
Charles Kushner, the father of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s senior advisor, is another case in point.
Kushner, the real estate mogul and major Democratic campaign donor, was appointed by Governor McGreevey to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 2002 and was nominated by the Governor to be the chairman of the board of the sprawling bi-state multi-billion-dollar enterprise in 2003.
McGreevey had to withdraw that nomination and Kushner had to resign when allegations surfaced that the developer’s massive donations to his campaign might have run afoul of campaign finance and conflict of interest laws.
The year before Kushner’s appointment, while on a trip to Israel, McGreevey crossed paths with Golan Cipel, who was in his early 30s. Subsequent press reports boiled down the young Israeli’s bio to his being a former member of the Israeli Navy and a published poet.
In 2002, it was Kushner who sponsored Cipel, for a hard to obtain work visa in the U.S. and gave him a $30,000-a-year job in his northern New Jersey office after Cipel had worked on the McGreevey campaign.
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, Cipel was nominated by McGreevey to a $110,000 job to lead the state’s freshly minted Homeland Security office. Cipel’s status as an Israeli citizen and his lack of executive-level counter-terrorism experience sent up multiple flares which McGreevey ignored.
The young Governor doubled down, as he blew through his very limited ‘honeymoon’ political capital trying to make the appointment stick. But the Governor’s wild overstatement of Cipel’s work experience doomed the pick and Cipel handed in his resignation in March of 2002. Yet, he was kept on at the same salary as a “policy counselor” a position he would resign from a few months later.
In August of 2004 McGreevey resigned from office disclosing that he was “a gay American”, explaining he was compelled to make the bombshell disclosure because Cipel, with whom he had an affair, was threatening to sue him unless he was paid $5 million (McGreevey reportedly called the U.S. Attorney Chris Christie to report the alleged extortion).
But as Cipel tells it on his own website he was the victim of sexual harassment. “All those things that I rationalized to myself seemed very logical at the time, but the sad truth is that I was acting out of confusion and fear,” Cipel writes. “Like many other victims of sexual harassment, I chose to deny what had happened.”
The art of the deal
In August of 2004 the elder Kushner, a towering figure in both American and Israeli politics and philanthropy, pled guilty to a long list of corruption charges that could have sent him to jail for many years if he had been your run of the mill federal defendant of color in a drug conspiracy case.
Kushner admitted to hiring a prostitute to seduce his brother-in-law, who was working with federal investigators against him, then videotaping that sexual rendezvous and sending it to his brother-in-law’s spouse, who was Kushner’s sister.
But Kushner and his lawyers would ultimately outmaneuver U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, whose major vulnerability was his own infinite ambition for power as we saw with Bridgegate. The night before Kushner was supposed to be in court to plead guilty, the U.S. Attorney leaked the still un-inked deal to reporters.
But as the media waited in Newark the next day for the official deal to be confirmed in the federal courtroom, the appointed time came and went. Behind the scenes, Kushner’s lawyers and Christie’s team were going back and forth over the terms and conditions of the deal.
By the end of the day, Kushner would enter a guilty plea as advertised, but he made no commitment to cooperate with the government or to offer up any potential co-conspirators. According to the Department of Justice’s press release, Kushner pleaded guilty to 18 counts of filing false tax returns, one count of retaliating against a cooperating witness and one count of making false statements to the Federal Election Commission.
By the evening news cycle, the morning’s news of a plea deal was finally true, and Christie could bask in the glory. “This is a great victory for the people of New Jersey,” said the federal prosecutor who would soon run for governor. “No matter how rich and powerful any person may be, they will be held accountable for criminal conduct by this office.”
Each of Kushner’s 18 tax counts carried a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a fine of $100,000, according to the DOJ; the witness retaliation count carried a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000; and the false statement charge provided for a maximum prison term of five years and a fine of $250,000.
Scroll forward to March of 2005, though, and Kushner was sentenced to just two years — which, The New York Times reported at the time, was the most he “could have received under a plea agreement reached last September,” with Christie.
It was clear that Christie’s office had been out-lawyered by the Kushner team. And the Christie-approved leak — before he had closed the deal — definitely hadn’t helped. Before sentencing, the Department of Justice wrote a letter to the judge observing that, in the final analysis, Kushner showed a “failure to accept responsibility” for a long litany of criminal acts that could have landed him in federal prison for decades.”
Without a truly thorough prosecution, the House of Kushner would endure and prosper and Kushner would see his son go on to greater things sitting in the star chamber of ultimate power deciding who the U.S. should bomb or sell weapons to.
Equal justice not
Our collective attention span is so short and the non-contextual way the news is reported assures we lose track of the narrative thread so when types like Epstein and Kushner cut their deals we miss it.
Without the candle power of the Miami Herald’s probe of the Epstein plea deal, we remain in the dark about how every day great wealth can insulate the guilty, no matter heinous their crime, from really being held accountable.
Meanwhile, those without means, who are innocent, are chewed up and spit out by a criminal justice system that is neither blind nor fair.
“We have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent,” said civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson in his TED Talk. “Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes. And yet, we seem to be very comfortable. The politics of fear and anger have made us believe that these are problems that are not our problems.”