Palm Beach County clerk Joe Abruzzo wants judge to rewrite Jeffrey Epstein grand jury ruling

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  • Jeffrey Epstein
    American financier

In what some lawyers are calling an unprecedented move, Palm Beach County Clerk of Courts Joe Abruzzo wants a judge to rewrite a ruling so it doesn’t say he fought the release of secret records that could explain why sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein received such lenient treatment more than a decade ago.

When Circuit Judge Donald Hafele on Dec. 20 rejected The Palm Beach Post’s request to release transcripts of a 2006 grand jury hearing, he wrote that “the clerk has zealously advocated the position against disclosure.”

Joe Abruzzo
Joe Abruzzo

Even though Abruzzo’s attorney wrote a 26-page motion, offering Hafele a litany of reasons that the records should remain secret, the clerk on Monday asked the judge to remove any suggestion that he opposed releasing the records that are housed in his office.

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“To have the final judgment include language that implies that the clerk was zealously advocating against the release of records — rather than simply that he was required to maintain the confidentiality absent a court order — would be a mischaracterization of his position,” wrote an attorney for Abruzzo, who also is county comptroller.

Jeffrey Epstein, left, enters a Palm Beach County courtroom on June 30, 2008 with attorney Guy Lewis.
Jeffrey Epstein, left, enters a Palm Beach County courtroom on June 30, 2008 with attorney Guy Lewis.

Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University, said Abruzzo’s request is unusual. Lawyers routinely ask judges to correct factual mistakes, such as the amount of a jury verdict or the date of a hearing.

Asking a judge to rewrite an order 'to make me look better'

“But I have never heard of a litigant or anyone asking a judge to rewrite an order saying it will make me look better,” Jarvis said. “It’s outrageous. It’s ridiculous.”

If Abruzzo truly didn’t object to The Post’s request, Jarvis questioned why he spent public money to hire a Tampa lawyer, who specializes in suing news outlets, to represent him.

Further, he questioned why Abruzzo’s attorney, Shane Vogt, didn’t write a short motion, simply explaining that the clerk wasn’t taking a position but couldn’t release the records without the judge’s permission.

“A first-year law student could have written a one-page brief just to let the judge know he didn’t have a dog in the fight,” Jarvis said.

Instead, Vogt, who represented Hulk Hogan in an invasion of privacy lawsuit that bankrupted the online website Gawker and is representing Sarah Palin in a defamation lawsuit against the New York Times, wrote a lengthy motion.

In addition to arguing that The Post should have requested the transcripts from the chief judge, not the clerk, Vogt reminded Hafele of his obligation to stop people from using the court system to “pervert” state law.

Vogt also underscored the danger of releasing the transcripts to the paper so it could share them with the public.

“Releasing grand jury materials to a member of the press could set a dangerous precedent that grand jury members and witnesses can no longer trust the government officials who assured them that their identities would be protected when they participated in the grand jury process,” he wrote.

Had he decided to release the records, Hafele said he would have redacted the names of the grand jurors and any of Epstein's victims. The Post said it had no interest in publishing that information.

Vogt also scoffed at the key part of The Post’s argument: that state law contains an exception that allows grand jury records to be released to further the interest of justice.

That provision allows people only to request grand jury records as part of a civil lawsuit or criminal prosecution, Vogt wrote. The legislature never intended it to be used by a newspaper to inform the public, he said.

More: Epstein victim sheds anonymity to seek answers: 'Why can’t I see the documents now?'

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Ultimately, Hafele adopted that view. While he said the newspaper made strong arguments, he said he was legally prohibited from granting the request.

“It is evident that the phrase ‘furthering justice’ is to be interpreted in the context of seeking disclosure of grand jury materials for use in a pending criminal or civil case,” he wrote. "The newspaper acknowledges that it is not seeking disclosure of the materials for such a purpose."

Still, he said, a higher court may have a different view. The Post is considering an appeal.

Judge agrees transcripts could shed light on Epstein case

Like The Post, Hafele said the grand jury transcripts could help the public understand why Epstein wasn't charged with serious sex crimes after more than a dozen girls told Palm Beach police he molested them at his waterfront mansion.

Instead, under a secret nonprosecution agreement, he was allowed to plead guilty to two solicitation of prostitution charges. In exchange, federal prosecutors agreed not to pursue him on charges that could have sent him to prison for years.

He served 13 months of an 18-month sentence in an empty wing of the Palm Beach County Stockade, a cell he was allowed to leave for 12 hours a day, six days a week.

If Barry Krischer, Palm Beach County's state attorney at the time, had taken the allegations the teens made seriously, the grand jury would have indicted Epstein on child molestation charges, said Palm Beach Police Chief Michael Reiter, who took the case to federal prosecutors.

In his ruling, Hafele acknowledged that the grand jury transcript may show that Krischer's top lieutenants steered the panel away from indicting Epstein on severe charges.

“It may well be that the disclosure of Jeffery Epstein’s grand jury records could reveal that fair treatment did not occur and that Mr. Epstein might have escaped appropriate punishment through some failing of our justice system,” Hafele wrote.

Abruzzo says he's working to get records released

Abruzzo said he is working with the county's legislative delegation in hopes of amending state law to expand when grand jury records could be released.

"These talks to find an amendment sponsor are already underway," he said in a statement.

He also said he is exploring whether he could petition the court to make the records public. "I will leave no stone unturned to do whatever I can to shed full light and public disclosure on the Epstein case," he said.

However, he didn't respond to questions about why he hired Vogt or how much he paid him.

It appears Vogt is no longer representing Abruzzo. Attorney Colin Jackson, who works for the clerk's office, filed the latest request.

Jarvis said he is baffled by Abruzzo's handling of the lawsuit. Like the newspaper, he said little harm could come from releasing the grand jury transcripts.

Epstein hung himself in a New York jail cell in 2019 while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges that could have sent him to prison for decades. At the same time, despite all the information that has been revealed about Epstein's sordid lifestyle, the public is still clamoring for more.

Most troubling, Jarvis said, is Abruzzo's decision to hire a Gulf Coast lawyer to represent him in a lawsuit he now claims he didn't want to fight.

“Why did Abruzzo spend taxpayers’ money to fight the paper’s request?” Jarvis said. “And why is he spending more Palm Beach County taxpayer’s money to get this opinion corrected so it makes him look better?"

While he doesn't live in the county, Jarvis said he would be asking such questions if he did.

"Is that what my clerk thinks is a good use of his time and his legal budget?" Jarvis asked.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Jeffrey Epstein case: Why Palm Beach County clerk wants judge to rewrite ruling

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