At a news conference after Jeffrey Epstein’s 2019 sex trafficking indictment, a reporter asked Geoffrey Berman, then the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, if new information had prompted his office’s inquiry. The FBI, after all, had investigated Epstein’s sexual predation more than a decade earlier, and the crimes in the 2019 indictment took place between 2002 and 2005. Berman revealed little about what went on inside his office but said that his team was helped by “some excellent investigative journalism.”
He was clearly referring to Julie K. Brown’s 2018 Miami Herald series “Perversion of Justice.” Brown had delved into how prosecutors led by Alex Acosta, who would later become Donald Trump’s secretary of labor, went behind the backs of Epstein’s victims to give the pedophile financier a scandalously lenient deal.
She has now written a book with the same title, which both expands on the Epstein story and explains all that went into writing it. It’s a gripping journalistic procedural, sort of “Spotlight” meets “Erin Brockovich.” It also shows just how close Epstein came to getting away with his industrial-scale sexual exploitation.
Brown’s book, which comes out Tuesday, is about a mind-blowing case of plutocratic corruption, full of noirish subplots that may never be fully understood. But it’s also about the slow strangulation of local and regional newspapers. Reading it, I kept thinking of all the malfeasance likely to go unexposed as many once-formidable newspapers outside of New York and Washington either shrink or disappear altogether.
Thanks to Brown, the basic outlines of the Epstein scandal — at least the part that preceded his baffling death — are well known. As she summarizes it in her book, “A supremely wealthy money manager with political connections wrestled an incredible immunity agreement out of the federal government — despite having molested, raped and sexually abused dozens of girls.” Rather than decades in federal prison, Epstein served only 13 months — with daily work release — in a county jail, where his cell door was left unlocked and a TV was installed for his entertainment.
Because of Brown’s reporting, Epstein seemed on the verge of real legal accountability when he died in his cell, apparently by suicide, in 2019. That reporting was done in the face of powerful headwinds. She was up against Epstein’s intimidating legal team and fears about her safety.
But Brown also had to contend with the punishing economics of the contracting newspaper industry, which for the past decade has been shedding experienced reporters and forcing those who remain to do much more with much less.
Brown, who has worked in journalism for more than three decades, got her start in Philadelphia at a time when newspapers were thriving. “We had so many news organizations and papers, and it was so competitive,” she told me. There were people covering “every single city council, planning board, zoning board” meeting. In the past, she said, newspaper journalists were “used to uncovering all this corruption. We’re used to finding injustices pretty easily and writing these stories pretty easily. And now we just don’t have the staff to do that anymore.”
“Perversion of Justice” begins in 2017 with Brown trying to get hired at The Washington Post after more than 10 years at The Herald.
“I hoped it would offer me the kind of stability that I never felt I had at The Herald, where layoffs, pay cuts and unpaid leaves were an annual ritual,” she wrote.
The Herald wasn’t unique: As the Pew Research Center recently reported, newsroom employment has plummeted 26% since 2008. Journalists in the middle of their careers — those 35-54 — have been hit the hardest, as Pew found last year.
At The Herald, said Brown, veteran reporters were pushed out because their salaries were too high. She was able to hang on, but she had to accept a 15% pay cut in 2009.
“I consoled myself by remembering that I still had my waitressing chops from my early years in journalism in case I needed them,” she wrote.
While waiting to hear about the Post job, which she didn’t get, Brown started digging into Epstein. She’d spent four years covering prisons for The Herald, which led her to start reporting on sex trafficking. You couldn’t research sex trafficking in Florida without coming across the Epstein case. So when Trump nominated Acosta, Brown figured the Epstein deal he oversaw would be an issue in his confirmation hearings.
“I was astonished that Epstein’s name barely came up, and that the questions Acosta was asked showed that the senators didn’t understand the gravity of what Acosta had done,” she wrote.
She pitched her editor on the idea of tracking down some of Epstein’s victims and talking to them.
Brown would eventually identify around 80 women who said they had been abused by Epstein when they were girls, and she got four of them to speak on the record. It was a journalistically grueling process. Many of the women’s names were redacted in legal documents, making it a challenge just to figure out who they were.
At first neither the women nor their lawyers responded to her phone calls. She tried knocking on doors but got nowhere. Finally, she sent out nearly 60 letters. A week later one recipient, Michelle Licata — who’s referred to as Jane Doe 2 in the case files — called her.
Brown’s book is richer for including lots of reportorial impasses and rabbit holes; it shows what a painstaking and often maddening process investigative journalism is. People should understand, she said, “that journalism isn’t always about success. To be honest a lot of it is about failure.”
To keep going in the face of inevitable frustration — fruitless reporting trips, false leads, fraudulent would-be sources and a barrage of legal threats — Brown needed not just personal fortitude but institutional support. Even in its attenuated state, The Herald provided that, she said.
“I’m fortunate that they let me do the project, really,” she said. “They weren’t excited 100%, but I think they trusted that it was worth letting me pick away at it and see what I would come up with.”
Yet she still had to juggle the Epstein investigation with other assignments. She would sometimes pay her own expenses rather than justify them to higher-ups, even as she was relying on payday loans to make ends meet.
Brown is finally in a better place financially. She’s working with Adam McKay, the director of “The Big Short,” to turn “Perversion of Justice” into an HBO miniseries. After years of renting, she was recently able to buy a condo.
“I’ve been able to pay down some of my horrible debt that I have accumulated,” she said.
But she’s 59 and still doesn’t have a retirement account.
I asked Brown whether she plans to stay on the Epstein beat, since there are still so many loose ends. She said she was torn. There are still a lot of mysteries about Epstein, but plenty of other reporters are digging into them.
“I felt like at one point almost every journalist in the world hopped on this story,” she said. “At some point you sort of feel like, ‘What is your purpose?’ I feel like maybe my purpose right now isn’t this story anymore. Maybe I need to move on to another story like this that nobody was paying attention to.”
The more newspapers collapse, the more such stories there are likely to be.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.