Epstein death sparks questions for federal government

Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent suicide while locked up at a federal jail is sparking questions for officials tasked with overseeing his custody as the disgraced financier awaited trial on sex-trafficking charges.

Reports of Epstein's death early Saturday left many officials and lawmakers voicing shock and demanding answers, with news that he killed himself coming just weeks after officials investigated a possible suicide attempt.

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Epstein was apparently taken off suicide watch before he died at the Manhattan jail, with federal authorities in New York and at the Justice Department in Washington expressing alarm over the death and saying the FBI would investigate.

“In addition to the FBI’s investigation, I have consulted with the Inspector General who is opening an investigation into the circumstances of Mr. Epstein’s death," Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrFeds distributing masks, other gear seized in price-gouging investigation to NY, NJ health care workers The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - All eyes on today's unemployment numbers Trump announces enhanced counternarcotics operation at coronavirus briefing MORE said in a statement.

Barr said he was "appalled" by Epstein's death and that his apparent suicide while in federal custody "raises serious questions that must be answered."

By opening an FBI investigation as well as watchdog review, officials are conducting simultaneous probes that could result in disciplinary action or carry more serious implications depending on whatever facts are found in the case.

Some lawmakers are already calling for people to be fired.

“Every single person in the Justice Department — from your Main Justice headquarters staff all the way to the night-shift jailer — knew that this man was a suicide risk, and that his dark secrets couldn’t be allowed to die with him," Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseAmerica's governors should fix unemployment insurance Mnuchin emerges as key asset in Trump's war against coronavirus House Republican urges Pompeo to take steps to limit misinformation from China on coronavirus MORE (R-Neb.) wrote in a letter to Barr on Saturday.

Sasse, who chairs the Senate Judiciary oversight subcommittee, wrote that Epstein "should have been locked in a padded room under unbroken, 24/7, constant surveillance" given the previous possible suicide attempt.

"Obviously, heads must roll," he wrote.

Others expressed fury over the situation, noting Epstein's apparent suicide came two weeks after he was found unconscious in his cell with marks around his neck.

Many were left scrambling to find answers to a litany of questions Saturday, including when and why Epstein was removed from suicide watch and how secure his cell was. 

“We need answers. Lots of them,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOvernight Health Care: Global coronavirus cases top 1M | Cities across country in danger of becoming new hotspots | Trump to recommend certain Americans wear masks | Record 6.6M file jobless claims Trump blasts Schumer over 'incorrect sound bites' on coronavirus Trump warns against 'partisan investigations' after Pelosi establishes select committee on virus response MORE (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, tweeted.

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"For them to pull him off suicide watch is shocking,” Cameron Lindsay, a former warden with experience working at three federal facilities, told NBC News. “For someone this high-profile, with these allegations and this many victims, who has had a suicide attempt in the last few weeks, you can take absolutely no chances. You leave him on suicide watch until he’s out of there.”

Preet BhararaPreetinder (Preet) Singh BhararaBig stimulus packages required, but they risk political blowback Rep. Collins says Democrats are 'in love with terrorists,' 'mourn Soleimani' George Conway: 'Garbage' White House defense 'virtually guarantees' Trump impeachment MORE, the former top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, tweeted that he was "dumbfounded" by the incident.

Epstein, who awaited trial on charges of sexual abuse and trafficking involving girls in Florida and New York going back to the early 2000s, was being housed in a cell in the Special Housing Unit at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which operates the jail, said in a statement that Epstein, 66, was found unresponsive in his cell around 6:30 a.m. on Saturday. Authorities said staff took immediate action to revive him and he was transferred to a local hospital for treatment where he was later pronounced dead.

The Bureau of Prisons declined to comment further to The Hill.

Conspiracy theories quickly erupted on social media Saturday, with many looking at the well-connected financier's apparent suicide through a political lens and at least one top Trump administration official promoting a conspiracy about his death. 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpMilitary personnel to handle coronavirus patients at facilities in NYC, New Orleans and Dallas Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort has total of 20 patients: report Fauci says that all states should have stay-at-home orders MORE's personal lawyer Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiGoogle to spend .5 million in fight against coronavirus misinformation Hillicon Valley: FCC chief proposes 0M telehealth program | Twitter takes down posts promoting anti-malaria drugs for coronavirus| Whole Foods workers plan Tuesday strike 12 things to know today about coronavirus MORE, meanwhile, questioned the “motives” behind Epstein's death. 

“What does the word watch mean in the phrase suicide Watch? Who was watching?” the former New York City mayor tweeted. 

The severity of Epstein’s alleged crimes also fueled the flurry of inquiries from lawmakers, who said his suicide cut short his victims’ quest for justice.

The disgraced financier was in prison for allegedly sexually abusing and trafficking underage girls from 2002 to 2005 in an alleged scheme intended to appeal to powerful politicians in the U.S. and visiting from abroad.

Epstein’s death came just hours after a federal judge unsealed documents containing testimony from a girl Epstein is accused of trafficking in which she laid bare the inner workings of Epstein’s alleged operation.

“The death of Jeffrey Epstein does not end the need for justice for his victims or the right of the public to know why a prolific child molester got a slap on the wrist instead of a long prison sentence,” said Rep. Lois FrankelLois Jane FrankelCDC chief says it's wrong to call COVID-19 a 'Chinese virus' House lawmakers introduce legislation to promote women's global empowerment Afghan Women: Essential for Peace MORE (D-Fla.), whose district includes an oceanfront mansion where Epstein is said to have sexually abused dozens of minors.

Frankel went on to call for the House Oversight and Reform Committee to open a probe into a 2008 plea deal Epstein received that allowed him to serve only 13 months in prison and avoid federal sex-trafficking charges.

Rep. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierOvernight Defense: Aircraft carrier captain removed from duty after pleading for help with outbreak | Trump to expand use of defense law to build ventilators | Hospital ships receiving few patients Aircraft carrier captain removed from duty after pleading for help with coronavirus outbreak House Democrats eyeing much broader Phase 3 stimulus MORE (D-Calif.), a member of the Oversight panel, echoed Frankel’s call, saying the committee “has a duty to ensure all those who played a role in this travesty of justice answer to those crimes.” 

For their part, federal prosecutors in the case called Epstein's death “disturbing” and emphasized that they would continue to seek justice for his accusers even after the financier's death.

“To those brave young women who have already come forward and to the many others who have yet to do so, let me reiterate that we remain committed to standing for you, and our investigation of the conduct charged in the indictment – which included a conspiracy count – remains ongoing,” Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement.

While criminal proceedings against Epstein are likely to wind down, a lawyer representing a number of his accusers signaled that they would still pursue civil cases against his estate.

"On behalf of the victims I represent, we would have preferred he [Epstein] lived to face justice. Our civil cases can still proceed against his estate. Victims deserve to be made whole for the lifelong damage he caused. We’re just getting started," attorney Lisa Bloom tweeted

At least one woman who said she was trafficked by Epstein when she was 15 years old expressed anger over the fact that Epstein would not have to stand for trial and face his accusers.

“I am angry Jeffrey Epstein won't have to face his survivors of his abuse in court,” Jennifer Araoz told CNN in a statement. “Epstein is gone, but justice must still be served. I hope the authorities will pursue and prosecute his accomplices and enablers, and ensure redress for his victims.”