Are you ready for accountability? Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide has produced the rarest of events in government scandals these days — actual career consequences for those in authority. Attorney General William Barr demoted acting Bureau of Prisons director Hugh Hurwitz as more details have come to light about multiple failures in the facility where Epstein was housed:
Attorney General William Barr has removed the acting director of the Bureau of Prisons from his position more than a week after millionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein took his own life while in federal custody.
Hugh Hurwitz’s reassignment Monday comes amid mounting evidence that guards at the chronically understaffed Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York abdicated their responsibility to keep the 66-year-old Epstein from killing himself while he awaited trial on charges of sexually abusing teenage girls. The FBI and the Justice Department’s inspector general are investigating his death.
Barr named Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, the prison agency’s director from 1992 until 2003, to replace Hurwitz. Hurwitz is moving to a role as a deputy in charge of the bureau’s reentry programs, where he will work with Barr on putting in place the First Step Act, a criminal justice overhaul.
It didn’t help that Epstein was the second high-profile federal prisoner to die under mysterious circumstances on Hurwitz’ watch. It was just nine months ago that James “Whitey” Bulger got transferred to a general population facility for some reason that has yet to be explained:
He also weathered through the death of Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, who was killed in a federal prison in West Virginia in October, just after he was transferred there. Lawmakers, advocates and even prison guards had been sounding the alarm about dangerous conditions there for years, but there has been no public indication that federal prison officials took any action to address the safety concerns. Bulger’s killing was the third at the facility within six months.
It’s the second reassignment ordered by Barr in the past week in relation to Epstein’s death. Warden Lamine N’Diaye got a “temporary” reassignment while investigators probe the circumstances of Epstein’s suicide, but Hurwitz’ demotion strongly suggests that N’Diaye will not be returning to MCC. Two of the guards have been suspended as well, and Barr may not yet be done.
What’s interesting, at least in this administration, is the deep connections that Hawk Sawyer and Kane have with the Bureau of Prisons and previous administrations. Barr outlined their experience in his statement on the changes:
NEW: Attorney General William Barr replaces acting director of the Bureau of Prisons. The move comes more than a week after millionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein took his own life while in federal custody. https://t.co/5q8dw78jeI pic.twitter.com/Ubs9O3SvFe
— ABC News (@ABC) August 19, 2019
Hurwitz had some significant time at BoP too and a long record of bureaucratic service through multiple administrations, but he had only returned to the BoP in 2015. Barr’s opting for insider competence over outsider intervention, which would suit his style under any circumstances. At this point, Barr realizes that the Epstein episode is an utter disaster, and that the only way to get clear of it is to clear the decks and get the right resources in place.
The sudden injection of accountability has its own value in that process. It only takes a couple of demotions or terminations for the message to sink in, a phenomenon Barr undoubtedly hopes will work quickly at the Bureau of Prisons. It also allows the Trump administration to argue — correctly — that it’s taking the issue seriously, and that — hopefully correctly? — they had no interest in seeing Epstein hang himself. Firing or demoting the people in the chain of command at least implies that the DoJ and the White House have nothing to hide when it comes to Epstein. At least this White House.
Update: The need for an attitude change may have spurred Barr into action. Over the weekend, Fox News reported an unsurprising lack of cooperation from MCC staffers in the probes:
Personnel at the New York City prison where accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide last week have not been initially cooperative with investigators from the Department of Justice, a federal source told Fox News Friday.
Attorney General William Barr sent two senior DOJ officials to personally visit the Metropolitan Correctional Center and speak with staff from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in order to gather information on Epstein’s death after Barr said officials uncovered “serious irregularities” at the jail, a senior DOJ official told Fox News. The officials have been on site since Thursday and the FBI and the Justice Department’s inspector general are investigating conditions at the MCC.
That wouldn’t have included Hurwitz, of course. But watching him get yanked out of his job might have a salutary effect on those who think they can just brazen things out long enough to get past the scandal.