The investigation into Jeffrey Epstein’s death while a high-profile detainee in federal custody has not, er, killed itself quite yet. In fact, prosecutors will file charges this week against two prison guards for falsifying records, the Washington Post reported last night. Thus far, the two targets of the probe have refused to cut deals, but that may change now that the indictments have finally been unsealed:
Federal prosecutors in New York are preparing to file criminal charges as early as this week against two Bureau of Prisons workers who were supposed to check regularly on millionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein the night he hanged himself in his cell, according to people familiar with the matter.
The two corrections workers, whose names have not been released, fell under suspicion immediately after Epstein was found early on the morning of Aug. 10 in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federal jail used primarily for people awaiting trial. …
Those irregularities include logs indicating that Epstein was checked on regularly, in accordance with MCC procedures. Investigators don’t believe those checks happened, according to the people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation. The two staffers were placed on leave shortly after Epstein’s death.
Prosecutors have been focused on charges against the officers of falsifying federal records, people familiar with the matter said. In recent weeks, they sought to have the officers plead guilty, though they refused, the people said.
The indictment focuses on falsifying government documents:
The two correctional officers, Tova Noel and Michael Thomas were charged with “making false records and conspiring to make false records and to defraud the United States by impairing the lawful functions of the Metropolitan Correctional Center (“MCC”), a Manhattan detention facility that houses federal inmates,” a release from the Southern District of New York said.
“As alleged, the defendants had a duty to ensure the safety and security of federal inmates in their care at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. Instead, they repeatedly failed to conduct mandated checks on inmates, and lied on official forms to hide their dereliction,” U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman said in a statement.
This is no doubt a very serious matter, especially when it results in an inmate’s death … one way or the other. One has to wonder why prosecutors are pressing a criminal charge in this case, though, rather than just termination with prejudice. Do prison guards routinely get put in prison themselves for falsifying records, especially at overcrowded facilities like MCC? That’s what they’re now warning everyone, but the AP also notes that the problem is chronic and not just at MCC:
Falsification of records has been a problem throughout the federal prison system. Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, who was named director of the Bureau of Prisons after Epstein’s death, disclosed in a Nov. 4 internal memo that a review of operations across the agency found some staff members failed to perform required rounds and inmate counts but logged that they had done so anyway.
“Falsification of information in government systems and documents is also a violation of policy, and may be subject to criminal prosecution as well,” Hawk Sawyer wrote in the memo to top prison officials, a copy of which was obtained by the AP.
The memo also noted that staff members who are indicted by a grand jury will be placed on an indefinite, unpaid suspension until the resolution of the criminal case.
The problems of staffing and other resources at that prison have been well-known to people within the justice system for years, and corners will get cut when those kinds of problems occur. How many times have guards been prosecuted for this in the past? It’s tough to say without hard data, but one would think that earlier prosecutions (a) would have been notable enough to make a national splash in the media, and (b) would have disincentivized what the guards did with Epstein at MCC.
Perhaps these guards lied to investigators, which the Department of Justice takes rather seriously, as we have repeatedly seen recently. If so, that might explain why prosecutors are leaning all over these two guards, but the indictment doesn’t include those charges, at least for now. It might also be that Attorney General William Barr wants to make an example pour encourager les autres, so that the next high-profile defendant in a major DoJ case doesn’t get enough room to take the easy way out before trial.
One has to also wonder, though, whether prosecutors are trying to make another case altogether. The official line on Epstein is still suicide, even though celebrity coroner Michael Baden concluded it was death at the hands of another. Do feds think these guards know something worth trading, and are using prosecution to flip them? Or do they just want to make it clear that embarrassing the bureaucracy at the DoJ carries heavy penalties? At this point, I’d buy either explanation.
Update: The indictment contains a very important piece of the Epstein-death puzzle. According to surveillance video, not only were the guards not making their rounds, no one else approached Epstein’s cell either:
NEW: Surveillance video shows that besides the two officers charged today, no one entered the SHU — where Epstein was housed — at anytime during the night he died, the indictment says. https://t.co/nEFKcWBT5U
— Tom Winter (@Tom_Winter) November 19, 2019
That means no one could have murdered Jeffrey Epstein, unless that person was already in the cell all along. The jail makes no record of any such person on any count, and one of the MCC’s failings with Epstein was that they didn’t assign him a cellmate as required for someone who had been on suicide watch previously. This should put an end to the “Epstein didn’t kill himself” meme … or at least slow it down.