Ghislaine Maxwell to appeal judge's order unsealing records in civil case

Kuzma/iStockBy JAMES HILL, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — As Ghislaine Maxwell sits in a federal detention center in Brooklyn, New York, facing allegations that she conspired with the late Jeffrey Epstein to sexually abuse three minor girls, her attorney is vowing an emergency appeal of a federal judge’s decision Thursday to make public a cache of sealed court documents from a civil lawsuit against Maxwell that was settled three years ago.

Citing “great concerns” about Maxwell’s ability to get a fair trial if the records are released, Maxwell’s lawyer, Laura Menninger, asked for a delay of two weeks to file an appeal of the ruling. The judge gave her one week.

“We are in a vastly different position,” now that Maxwell has been criminally charged, Menninger said, “and certainly have great concerns about our client’s ability to seek and receive an impartial and fair trial and jury, given the intense media scrutiny around anything that is unsealed,” she said.

The court filings in the case — a civil defamation lawsuit filed by Virginia Roberts Giuffre against Maxwell in 2015 — are said to contain the names of hundreds of people, some famous and some not, who socialized, traveled or worked with Epstein over the span of more than a decade. The late financier has previously been linked to a coterie of high-profile business leaders, scientists, royalty and politicians, including former President Bill Clinton and current President Donald Trump.

Senior U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Preska ruled Thursday during a remote court hearing that the public is legally entitled to access dozens of previously sealed records of the case, including transcripts and excerpts from depositions of Maxwell and Giuffre. Maxwell’s lawyers had previously argued to keep those records under seal.

“This series of pleadings concerns [Giuffre’s] attempt to compel Ms. Maxwell to answer intrusive questions about her sex life,” Maxwell’s attorney, Jeffrey Pagliuca, wrote last month. “The subject matter of these [documents] is extremely personal, confidential, and subject to considerable abuse by the media.”

In her ruling Thursday, Preska said that Maxwell’s team had failed to raise objections sufficient to overcome the presumption of public access to judicial documents.

“In the context of this case, especially its allegations of sex trafficking of young girls,” Preska said, “the Court finds that any minor embarrassment or annoyance resulting from disclosure of Ms. Maxwell’s mostly non-testimony about behavior that has been widely reported in the press is far outweighed by the presumption of public access.”

“The sealed testimony or summaries may inappropriately influence potential witnesses or alleged victims,” Pagliuca wrote last month.

But Preska rejected those arguments, too.

“Ms. Maxwell has not explained how this sealed material, if released, could, as she posits, ‘inappropriately influence potential witnesses or victims,'” Preska said. “Again, the Court finds that this interest is entitled to little weight under the facts of this case.”

Among the items Preska ordered unsealed are transcripts and excerpts from at least one of Maxwell’s multi-hour depositions in the case, which Maxwell’s attorneys argued were given under an expectation of confidentiality that had been agreed to by both sides in the dispute, according to Maxwell’s court filing objecting to the records release. Limited excerpts of those depositions were released last year.

Giuffre’s attorneys have long argued for near-total disclosure of the sealed records and have characterized Maxwell’s objections as a “blatant attempt to stall the unsealing process by creating unjustified obstacles … that will ensure the documents in this case, which are clearly subject to a presumption of public access, never see the light of day,” according to a filing last month by Giuffre’s lawyer, Sigrid McCawley.

McCawley contended that Maxwell’s arguments in favor of continued sealing are “especially jarring in light of the public’s interest in this litigation, which involved voluminous documents and testimony about Jeffrey Epstein’s transcontinental sex-trafficking operation and documents concerning various public agencies’ utter failure to protect and bring justice to his victims.”

The sealed records also contain the identities of people who provided information in the case under an expectation of confidentiality, plus the names of alleged victims and individuals accused of enabling Epstein or participating in the abuse.

Earlier this year, notification letters were sent to two “John Does,” anonymous individuals whose names are among several dozen that appear in just the first batch of hundreds of sealed and redacted documents, according to court records. Neither of the “John Does” filed any objections to the potential unsealing of the records, and Preska ordered documents relating to those two people unsealed.

Exceptions to Preska’s unsealing order will be made for personally identifiable information, medical records and the identities of any third parties whose names are contained in the records. Those names will remain at least temporarily sealed or redacted, pending a process Preska established to provide notification — and an opportunity to object to unsealing — to the dozens of people who are mentioned in the court record.

Maxwell, 58, is the daughter of the late British publishing magnate Robert Maxwell, who died in 1991 in what was ruled an accidental drowning incident off the coast of the Canary Islands. She met Epstein in New York following her father’s death, and the two were closely linked for more than a decade.

In unsealed excerpts from her depositions previously released in the case, Maxwell derided Giuffre as an “absolute liar.” She has also denied allegations from Giuffre and other women who contend in court filings that Maxwell recruited and trained girls and young women for Epstein and facilitated their abuse.

Federal prosecutors have alleged in Maxwell’s criminal case that she made false statements during her depositions in the Giuffre case, leading to two perjury charges in the indictment against her.

Maxwell has pleaded not guilty to all the charges against her and is scheduled for trial next year.

Included in the records that have been reviewed by Preska are documents from June 2016 associated with an effort by Giuffre’s lawyers to get court approval for additional witness depositions beyond the 10 that had been allotted to each side. In a series of court filings surrounding the request, redactions conceal the name of one of the proposed witnesses and the descriptions of the information sought from that person.

But a review by ABC News of the public portions of the records, coupled with a transcript of a hearing that took place nine months later, reveal that Giuffre’s lawyers were then seeking court approval to depose Clinton about his prior relationship with Epstein.

“All of the people Ms. Giuffre seeks to depose have discoverable and important information regarding the elements of Ms. Giuffre’s claims,” McCawley wrote in a filing seeking the additional depositions.

While there have been no allegations of wrong-doing on the part of Clinton, Giuffre’s claim that she met the former president at a dinner with Epstein and Maxwell on Epstein’s private Caribbean island, Little St. James, emerged as a critical and contentious issue in the litigation.

Maxwell had argued in court filings that Giuffre’s claim was a fabrication that shattered her credibility. Personal flight logs kept by Epstein’s pilots showed that Clinton had traveled extensively on Epstein’s private jet to destinations in Africa, Asia and Europe in 2002 and 2003, but none of the available records showed the former president on a trip to Epstein’s island.

“This is utter nonsense and nothing more than a transparent ploy by [Giuffre] to increase media exposure for her sensational stories through deposition side-show. This witness has nothing relevant to add,” Maxwell’s attorney Laura Menninger wrote in opposition to the proposed deposition.

According to that filing by Maxwell’s lawyer, Giuffre’s legal team initiated informal discussions with attorneys for the then-unnamed witness on June 9, 2016.

Giuffre’s lawyers did contact Clinton’s attorneys about a potential deposition, a person familiar with the situation told ABC News. Clinton’s lawyer responded that it would not be helpful to Giuffre, the person said, because the president was never on the island. For whatever reason, her lawyers dropped the matter, the person said.

But according to a publicly-available transcript of a hearing in the case — Giuffre’s lawyers continued to pursue the court’s permission to take Clinton’s deposition until their request was ultimately denied by the judge, in a still sealed ruling in late June 2016

Giuffre’s lawyers pressed the Clinton issue with the judge at a hearing in March 2017, six weeks before the trial was scheduled to begin. According to the transcript, Giuffre’s legal team was then seeking to prevent Maxwell’s side from presenting testimony at trial suggesting that Clinton hadn’t been on Epstein’s island, arguing it would be “inherently unfair” to Giuffre because they had not been permitted to question Clinton.

“You did not allow us to depose him because you said it was irrelevant,” McCawley argued before U.S. District Court Judge Robert Sweet. “So now we’re in a position where at trial they want to put forth that information against my client, and I don’t have an under-oath statement from that individual saying whether or not he actually was,” she added.

“What we know is [Clinton] flew with Jeffrey Epstein at the same time 19 different times internationally and nationally, but we don’t have him with respect to this particular allegation under oath,” she added. “So we would say it would be highly prejudicial for them to be able to introduce evidence saying he wasn’t there or that they have some proof or some expert saying he wasn’t there when, in fact, we weren’t able to ask him directly, the person who is at issue, under oath, whether or not he did, in fact, go there.”

Maxwell’s attorneys, according to the transcript, told the court Maxwell was prepared to take the stand and testify that Clinton was never on the island.

But because the trial never occurred, Giuffre’s motion to exclude testimony about Clinton was left unresolved. More information about the debate over the issue may eventually become public as additional documents from the case are unsealed.

Following Epstein’s arrest last July, a spokesperson for Clinton, Angel Ureña, said in a statement that the former president “knows nothing” about Epstein’s crimes.

“He’s not spoken to Epstein in well over a decade,” the statement adds, “and has never been to Little St. James Island, Epstein’s ranch in New Mexico, or his residence in Florida.”

Giuffre, now a 36-year old mother living in Australia, alleges she was sexually abused as a teenager by Epstein and Maxwell between 2000 and 2002. She also claims to have been directed to have sex with some of their prominent friends, including Britain’s Prince Andrew. Both the Prince and Maxwell have denied Giuffre’s allegations. She made no allegations of wrong-doing by Clinton.

Giuffre filed the action against Maxwell in September 2015, alleging that the former British socialite defamed her when her publicist issued a statement referring to Giuffre’s allegations as “obvious lies.”

Previously unsealed records from the case have already generated headlines around the world after a federal appeals court ordered the release of more than 2,000 pages of documents last August, a month after Epstein’s arrest by federal authorities in New York. The Miami Herald spear-headed the legal challenge to make the filings public.

Included in that collection were excerpts from Giuffre’s depositions naming several prominent men she alleges Epstein and Maxwell directed her to have sex with, including Prince Andrew, former U.S. Senator George Mitchell and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson. All of those men, and others accused by Giuffre, have denied the allegations.

“The documents and exhibits should be carefully examined for the vivid, detailed and tragic story they tell in the face of cursory, bumper-sticker-like statements by those accused,” Giuffre’s attorney McCawley wrote in a statement on the day of the document’s release. “Virginia Roberts Giuffre is a survivor and a woman to be believed. She believes a reckoning of inevitable accountability has begun.”

The morning after that first set of documents was made public, Epstein was found unresponsive in his jail cell in Manhattan, where he was being held pending trial on charges of child sex-trafficking and conspiracy. The cause of death was determined by the New York City medical examiner as suicide by hanging, though that ruling has been challenged by a forensic pathologist hired by Epstein’s brother, the sole-surviving heir to an estate valued at more than $600 million.

Following those initial disclosures, a federal appeals court ordered the review of thousands more sealed court filings to determine which records should be made public. Preska was selected to oversee the process because Sweet, the original trial court judge, died last year at the age of 96.

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