Senators ripped into the top official for federal prisons Tuesday for stonewalling questions about jail-cell death of billionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Sen. John Kennedy gave voice to the lingering doubts and widespread public skepticism about the notorious New York financier’s death by suicide.
“Christmas ornaments, drywall and Jeffrey Epstein. Name three things that don’t hang themselves,” the Louisiana Republican said. “That’s what the American people think, and they deserve some answers.”
Bureau of Prisons Director Kathleen Hawk Sawyer said she had no answers to give because other offices are the parties investigating Epstein’s death.
“The death and the whole situation is still under investigation by the FBI and the [Justice Department’s] inspector general’s office,” she said. “I’m really not at liberty to discuss the case.”
Ms. Hawk Sawyer’s appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee coincided with federal prosecutors in New York filing criminal charges against two guards responsible for monitoring Epstein on the night of his death.
The guards, Michael Thomas and Tova Noel, were charged with falsifying records and conspiring to falsify records. They appeared in federal court Tuesday afternoon.
Epstein’s death in August at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan shocked the nation and has sprung a variety of conspiracy theories about whether he was killed and by whom.
At the time of his death, Epstein was awaiting trial on charges of operating a sex trafficking ring for his pleasures and paying girls as young as 14 for sex.
The death was ruled a suicide by hanging but doubts and conspiracy theories persist, fueled by numerous irregularities at the prison, Epstein’s having rubbed shoulders among the world’s elite and reports that the autopsy showed injuries more common in strangulation homicides than hanging suicides.
Senators said Americans are frustrated by the lack of information on Epstein’s death and at times appeared exasperated with Ms. Hawk Sawyer, who became visibly flustered by the heated questions.
“This death happened in the middle of August. It’s Thanksgiving, and you are here to testify today, and you say you are not allowed to speak about this incident. I think that’s crazy,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican.
“With all due respect, you still have an obligation to speak to the girls who were raped by this guy,” he continued.
“Sir, I can’t tell you what I don’t know,” Ms. Hawk Sawyer responded. “I have received no information from the FBI investigation and no information from the inspector general.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, assailed Ms. Hawk Sawyer and the Bureau of Prisons, calling Epstein’s death a “profound indictment” of the agency.
“What happened to Jeffrey Epstein was an enormous black eye to the BOP and the Department of Justice,” Mr. Cruz said. “It was disgraceful.”
Ms. Hawk Sawyer insisted that she has seen no evidence to suggest that Epstein’s death was the result of anything other than suicide. She refused to answer questions about the death, saying that she did not want to interfere with the ongoing investigations.
However, she said the FBI probe is looking into the possibility that a “criminal enterprise” was involved.
No major policy changes have been implemented as a result of Epstein’s suicide, Ms. Hawk Sawyer told the committee and blamed the debacle on employees who didn’t follow orders.
She acknowledged a breakdown in the system, including the failure of guards to check on Epstein who was taken off suicide watch just before his death, which violated policy.
“It’s a lapse of a lot of things … if the staff is not doing their rounds and their cell checks as they are supposed to be doing,” she said.
Ms. Hawk Sawyer said Epstein was only the second suicide this year in a high-level, secure prison facility.
“We had two deaths and, unfortunately, one of those was an extraordinary high-profile case, and it makes everyone paint the Bureau of Prisons with the broad brush of incompetence,” she said.
That’s exactly how New York prosecutors described the two guards charged Tuesday.
Mr. Noel and Mr. Thomas “repeatedly failed to perform mandated counts of prisoners under their watch,” according to the indictment unsealed Tuesday.
“Instead, for substantial portions of their shift, Noel and Thomas sat at their desk, browsed the internet and moved around the common area of the Special Housing Unit,” according to the 19-page indictment.