TALLAHASSEE --- A day after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered a state investigation into the matter, Attorney General Ashley Moody is questioning why a Florida sheriff allowed convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein to participate in a work-release program more than a decade ago.
But Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw’s office said Epstein had to be treated like any other inmate while in the custody of the local law enforcement official.
Epstein was arrested earlier this year in New York, and is now facing sex-trafficking charges involving minors in Florida and New York.
DeSantis ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to examine Bradshaw’s handling of Epstein, after the wealthy financier pleaded guilty in 2008 to two state prostitution charges, including procuring a minor for sex.
The state investigation grew out of an internal affairs inquiry Bradshaw announced on July 19, after an allegation was made that Epstein was able to engage in sex while on work release.
But Moody told The News Service of Florida on Wednesday that she could not find any court records showing that Epstein should have been allowed to participate in the work-release program.
“I can tell you, at this point, we have not found anything within the judgment and sentence and we have not been able to locate any administrative order --- nothing in the transcript --- that would indicate that the judge was aware of ordered work release in this particular case,” Moody said in an interview.
But Bradshaw’s spokeswoman Teri Barbera told the News Service that a judge’s order was not necessary to get Epstein into the program. According to records provided by Bradshaw’s office, the program allowed Epstein to spend up to 12 hours a day, six days a week, at his West Palm Beach office while serving an 18-month sentence in the county jail.
Barbera said a judge could have issued a court order barring Epstein from participating in the program. But no judge took such an action, she said. Because Epstein met eligibility requirements for work release, Barbera said the sheriff’s office “was expected to treat Epstein like we did any other inmate in the Palm Beach County Jail.”
Figuring out who authorized Epstein to participate in the work release program will “absolutely” be part of the state probe, Moody said.
“We are trying to ensure that there wasn’t some other administrative order out there that would have allowed that, but at this point, we haven’t found that. And that is absolutely something that will be part of the investigation,” Moody said.
Florida Statewide Prosecutor Nick Cox, who works for Moody, told the News Service that his office has failed to find any court order authorizing Epstein for work release, which Cox maintains is necessary for the inmate to participate in the program.
“We have made efforts to determine whether the sentencing court in the circuit courts of Palm Beach County were aware or authorized the admission of Mr. Epstein into the work release program. Thus far, no such evidence has been discovered,” Cox said.
But Barbera said no court order was needed, because the plea agreement Epstein reached with federal prosecutors said the jail inmate was “not to be afforded any benefits with respect to gain time, other than the rights, opportunities, and benefits as any other inmate.”
Under the sheriff’s office policy in 2008, an inmate would not be eligible to participate in the work release program if he or she was convicted of certain sexual offenses, according to Barbera. But Epstein did not reach the threshold for exclusion, she said.
“There was no restriction in the work release program policy, in 2008, that would prohibit a sex offender from being in the program, however, I argue he was not a registered sex offender until July 22, 2009,” Barbera said. Epstein registered as a sex offender the day after he was released from jail.
But Cox said that the language in the plea agreement about gain time --- which allows a prisoner to be released early --- “does not impact what we’re looking at.”
“Work release is for an inmate who is still incarcerated but is allowed to leave their incarceration to work at their place of employment,” he said.
When ordering the FDLE inquiry on Tuesday, DeSantis pointed to “irregularities” in Epstein’s case. The governor reiterated those concerns when speaking to reporters on Wednesday, adding that “a lot of people” had questioned whether Bradshaw should investigate his own agency.
“I think most people look at how that thing was disposed of and they are not happy with how that worked out,” DeSantis said.
Later Wednesday, DeSantis said the FDLE inquiry is intended to “hold as many people accountable as we can.”
But the governor, who is a lawyer, noted that some violations may no longer be enforceable, due to the statute of limitations on certain crimes.
“Obviously, I think it would have been better to just have this done the right way the first time, but that’s not what happened.” he said.