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The arrest of Jeffrey E. Epstein on federal sex-trafficking charges has focused attention on the lenient plea bargain that state and federal prosecutors reached with him in Florida over similar charges more than a decade ago.
But the new indictment has also unexpectedly renewed scrutiny of another prosecutor’s treatment of Mr. Epstein: the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr.
During a hearing in 2011, a seasoned sex-crimes prosecutor from Mr. Vance’s office argued forcefully in court that Mr. Epstein, who had been convicted in Florida of soliciting an underage prostitute, should not be registered as a top-level sex offender in New York.
Instead, the prosecutor, Jennifer Gaffney, asked a judge to reduce Mr. Epstein’s sex-offender status to the lowest possible classification, which would have limited the personal information available to the public, and would have kept him from being listed on a registry of sex offenders for life.
Justice Ruth Pickholz vehemently denied the request and expressed incredulity that the district attorney’s office would argue in support of a man accused of sexually molesting dozens of teenage girls in Florida.
“I have to tell you, I’m a little overwhelmed because I have never seen a prosecutor’s office do anything like this,” the judge told Ms. Gaffney.
Mr. Vance has said the request was a mistake and had been made by Ms. Gaffney without his knowledge.
Still, his office’s decision to take Mr. Epstein’s side in the hearing drew renewed criticism this week, as federal prosecutors in Manhattan brought new charges against Mr. Epstein, a wealthy financier whose social circle has included President Trump and former President Bill Clinton.
He was arrested on Saturday after his plane landed at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. An indictment unveiled on Monday said he “sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls” from 2002 to 2005 in his palatial homes in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Fla.
It is not the first time Mr. Vance has been harshly criticized for his office’s handling of allegations against rich and influential men. He drew fire for declining to prosecute the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in 2015 on charges that he groped an Italian model in his TriBeCa office. His office later charged Mr. Weinstein with sex crimes involving two other women.
Mr. Vance had also found himself under attack for declining to pursue charges against two of Mr. Trump’s children, Ivanka and Donald Jr., in 2015, after they were accused of misleading investors in a condo-hotel project.
Mr. Vance’s critics have said his office’s support of Mr. Epstein’s motion was yet another example of Mr. Vance’s office giving preferential treatment to wealthy defendants — this time to a man accused of being a serial predator who targeted minors.
In Florida, Mr. Epstein hired a cadre of high-powered lawyers to fight the charges against him. The team eventually negotiated a lenient plea bargain with federal prosecutors that allowed him to plead guilty to state prostitution charges. He spent 13 months at a Palm Beach jail and was permitted to leave the facility six days a week, 12 hours a day, for work.
One of those lawyers, Jay Lefkowitz, also lobbied Mr. Vance’s office to have Mr. Epstein’s sex-offender status knocked down.
“Was it preferential treatment at the highest level, or is it that the Manhattan district attorney’s office is not run well enough to ensure that sex crimes are investigated and taken seriously?” said Sonia Ossorio, the president of the New York City arm of the National Organization for Women. “Either way it’s unacceptable.”
For his part, Mr. Vance denied in an interview that his office had ever given preferential treatment to any defendant because of wealth or social status. He said that claim is “simply wrong and is inconsistent and opposite to what I believe in and to what the lawyers in this office believe in.”
Ms. Gaffney, who was a senior sex crimes prosecutor, argued during the hearing that Mr. Epstein did not merit the highest offender status because he had not been indicted in Florida on all of the accusations against him. Several of his accusers had refused to cooperate, she told the judge, court records show.
She made the argument even though the New York state panel that evaluates people convicted of sex crimes — the Board of Examiners of Sex Offenders — had calculated that Mr. Epstein had a high risk of reoffending. His risk assessment was 130 — “solidly above” the 110 threshold for a level 3 offender, court records show.
The board had based its decision, in part, on a 22-page affidavit from detectives in the Palm Beach Police Department that detailed complaints from minors who said Mr. Epstein had molested them — a document Ms. Gaffney also had.
Yet Ms. Gaffney argued — incorrectly it turned out — that because Mr. Epstein was indicted on only one of those crimes, the other allegations could not be considered when determining sex-offender status.
“If an offender is not indicted for an offense, it is strong evidence that the offense did not occur,” Ms. Gaffney said.
The judge said she had done many sex-offender registration hearings with defendants “much less troubling than this one” and that prosecutors “would never make a downward argument like this.”
Ms. Gaffney then told the judge she had tried to reach prosecutors in Florida to learn if they had spoken with Mr. Epstein’s accusers, but “no one was cooperative.”
“I don’t think you did much of an investigation here,” Justice Pickholz said.
Mr. Epstein’s lawyers, Mr. Lefkowitz and Sandra Musumeci, also argued for the lower rating. They noted their client had been rated a level-one sex offender in the United States Virgin Islands, his legal residence, and had received a similar rating in Florida.
Five months before the hearing, the lawyers had supplied Manhattan prosecutors with a deposition in which the lead prosecutor in Palm Beach, Lanna Belohlavek, told detectives “there are no real victims here,” Ms. Musumeci said in court.
Justice Pickholz was unmoved and labeled Mr. Epstein a level-three sex offender, which meant his name and address would be on a state registry of sex offenders for life. His lawyers appealed the decision, but an appellate panel upheld the ruling.
During the appeal, the Manhattan district attorney’s office did an about-face, admitting Ms. Gaffney had misinterpreted the law and stating there was “no basis for a downward departure” from the highest rating.
On Tuesday, Mr. Vance said he had not learned about the hearing or the subsequent appeal until well after they happened. He added he had not even heard of Mr. Epstein at the time, and he was not typically kept informed about every sex-offender status hearing.
He said in reviewing the transcript of the hearing he did not believe Ms. Gaffney “was going out on a ledge for the defendant.”
“I see the lawyer for our office arguing on a point of law where she thought she was right but she was wrong,” he said.
Ms. Gaffney, who was never disciplined for her decision, left the Manhattan district attorney’s office in September. She did not respond to messages on Tuesday seeking comment.