NEW YORK - American financier Jeffrey Epstein was charged with sex trafficking on Monday, as prosecutors accused him of luring dozens of girls as young as 14 to his homes in New York and Florida and paying them for sex acts.
An indictment unsealed in federal court in Manhattan said Epstein, 66, "intentionally sought out minors and knew that many of his victims were in fact under the age of 18, including because, in some instances, minor victims expressly told him their age."
Epstein has said in earlier court filings that his encounters with alleged victims were consensual and that he believed they were 18 when they occurred.
The indictment charged Epstein with one count of sex trafficking and one count of sex trafficking conspiracy.
His lawyer, Jack Goldberger, said before the indictment was made public that Epstein will plead not guilty.
Known for socialising with politicians and royalty, the former hedge fund manager first came under investigation in 2005 after police in Palm Beach, Florida, received reports he had sexually abused minors in his mansion there.
Epstein was arrested on Saturday night and expected to appear in federal court on Monday to hear the charges, which cover a period from at least 2002 to 2005.
A decade ago, Epstein avoided similar charges in Florida in a plea deal.
By 2007, Epstein had been facing a potential federal indictment for sexually abusing dozens of girls between 1999 and 2007, directing others to abuse them and paying employees to bring victims to him, according to court filings.
However, Epstein struck a deal in which he pleaded guilty to a lesser Florida state felony prostitution charge. He served a 13-month sentence in county jail, during which he was allowed to leave during the day to go to his office.
Prosecutors involved in the agreement included Alex Acosta, then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida and now Secretary of Labor for President Donald Trump.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Labor on Sunday declined to comment on Epstein's arrest.
EPSTEIN SOUGHT 'STEADY SUPPLY' OF GIRLS
According to the indictment, Epstein would initially recruit victims to provide "massages," which they would perform nude or partially nude.
Prosecutors said the encounters would become increasingly sexual in nature, sometimes including groping and indirect contact with victims' genitals, where Epstein would typically masturbate and ask victims to touch him while he did.
Epstein also allegedly paid girls to recruit new girls, to ensure a "steady supply of new victims to exploit."
The indictment also said three unnamed employees, one in Manhattan and two in Palm Beach, aided Epstein by arranging some of his sexual encounters.
EARLIER DEAL CRITICISED
Several of Epstein's accusers had challenged his Florida deal in court, who say they were denied a chance to have their views, violating the federal Crime Victims' Rights Act.
In February of this year, a U.S. district judge in Florida agreed, ruling that the deal violated the law.
Even so, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a court filing last month there was no reason to cancel the agreement.
Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives confronted Acosta about his role in April, during a hearing before the House Appropriations subcommittee on a routine budget matter.
Acosta responded that human trafficking was "an incredibly important issue" and said his office's efforts ensured that Epstein faced jail time and had to register as a sex offender.
"I understand the frustration," Acosta told the subcommittee. "I think it's important to understand that he was going to get off with no jail time or restitution. It was the work of our office that resulted in him going to jail."
A Justice Department office is investigating whether government attorneys committed professional misconduct in the Epstein case.