By Julie K. Brown
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has ordered a state criminal probe into the actions of the Palm Beach sheriff and the former Palm Beach state attorney for their handling of the Jeffrey Epstein underage sex trafficking case.
DeSantis' move comes as Sheriff Ric Bradshaw has come under increasing scrutiny for his decision in 2008 to give Epstein, a politically connected multimillionaire, unusually lenient work release privileges even though Epstein was a convicted sex offender who had been accused of molesting dozens of underage girls.
State Sen. Lauren Book, a Democrat from Plantation, collected more than 4,000 signatures on a petition demanding that the Republican governor ask the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to undertake the investigation. Ultimately it was Bradshaw who requested the inquiry, although only after several days of mounting pressure.
"We got support for this from all over the country," Book said Tuesday. "Many of them are sexual assault survivors who have lived in the shadows for so long and who wanted to let Jeffrey Epstein's survivors know that they are not alone."
Epstein, 66, is now under indictment in New York, charged with sex trafficking minors -- both in Palm Beach and in Manhattan, where Epstein owns sprawling homes. Epstein was investigated in Palm Beach, starting in 2006, but then-State Attorney Barry Krischer wanted to charge him with a misdemeanor.
The case was transferred to the FBI, which discovered even more victims, and federal investigators gathered enough corroborating evidence to fill a 53-page federal indictment. The indictment, however, was inexplicably shelved under then-U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta, who signed off on an agreement that allowed Epstein to plead guilty to lesser charges in state court.
As part of the deal, Epstein was jailed in a private wing of the Palm Beach County stockade. But within a few months, he was allowed to have his own driver pick him up and take him to an office he had set up in West Palm Beach, where he spent up to 12 hours a day, six days a week.
In November, the Miami Herald published a multipart series of articles, Perversion of Justice, that raised new questions about the case. Federal prosecutors credited the investigation when they announced Epstein's arrest early last month. Days later, Acosta, who had become President Donald Trump's secretary of labor, resigned his post amid a rising chorus of criticism.
Bradshaw has been under fire for his approval of the work release program over objections from the lead federal prosecutor who handled the case, Maria Villafaña, who worked on Acosta's staff. Bradshaw ordered an internal affairs investigation into the work release last month, then announced he would conduct his own criminal probe.
Book, however, pointed out that Bradshaw -- as head of the agency -- had an inherent conflict of interest. Book is herself a sexual assault survivor and an advocate for child abuse victims.
Two weeks ago, Book reached out to Capitol police after receiving an anonymous warning connected to a letter she wrote to DeSantis asking for a state inquiry.
Book said she also received more than a dozen calls from Bradshaw's political supporters asking her to back off on her quest, warning her that it could be politically perilous to go up against Bradshaw, who is close to John Kazanjian, the president of the powerful Florida Police Benevolent Association. Kazanjian, who is also president of the Palm Beach PBA, endorsed DeSantis for governor and served on DeSantis' public safety transition team. The PBA contributed $25,000 to DeSantis' political action committee.
Lawmaker says she was told to back off probe of Jeffrey Epstein work release
DeSantis, in announcing the investigation Tuesday, said he was doing so at the behest of Bradshaw, who in a letter to the governor Tuesday said he would cooperate with the state probe.
"I believe the public interest would be best served by an FDLE-led investigation examining every aspect of the Epstein case, from court sentencing to incarceration," Bradshaw wrote.
DeSantis assigned the 19th Judicial Circuit, in neighboring Martin County, to oversee the criminal investigation.
Miami Herald staff writers Elizabeth Koh and David Smiley contributed to this report.
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