Manhattan federal prosecutors recently opened an investigation into the disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. This is in addition to the sex crime charges he currently faces in state courts in New York, Los Angeles, and London.
The investigation began as a probe into a suspicious donation to a charity auction. As with far too many federal criminal probes, this investigation morphed into whether Weinstein has broken federal stalking laws in attempts to silence the women who have accused him of sexual misconduct.
However, some legal experts are questioning the real reasons about why Weinstein is now being investigated federally.
Below, we take a look into the charges Mr. Weinstein faces in state courts, as well as the recently opened federal investigation. We also evaluate whether the feds should really be involved in the case, and the legal precedents that could result from questionable federal involvement in a high-profile case such as Weinstein’s.
Understanding Weinstein’s Sex Crime Charges
Weinstein is facing numerous allegations of sexual misconduct. More than 80 women have accused him of sexual improprieties, including sexual harassment and possible rape. Each make essentially the same charge: that Weinstein leveraged his position of power in Hollywood to coerce actresses into sexual favors. Further, on several occasions, he is accused of committing forcible sexual assault.
Besides this, Weinstein is alleged to have run smear campaigns in order to silence victims who rejected his sexual advances and against those who threatened to make public allegations against him.
However, after the first allegations were made public, dozens of actresses came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct. This has been fueled in part by the #MeToo movement, which has revealed sexual misconduct by dozens of powerful men in entertainment, business, and politics.
State police in New York, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, and London have investigated more than 20 allegations of sex crimes against Mr. Weinstein, and he has been charged by state courts with several criminal sexual acts, including sexual assault.
Where the Federal Criminal Investigation Fits into All This
The US Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York launched a quiet investigation in the shadow of these state criminal probes to determine if Weinstein had violated any federal laws.
These federal prosecutors first began investigating Weinstein in April 2018 under a 1910 law known as the Mann Act, which prohibits transporting women across state lines for “immoral” purposes. Inasmuch as this law I rarely used, some legal experts characterized the Weinstein investigation as “a reach.”
A federal fraud investigation was then launched into Weinstein’s donations to a charity auction in May 2015. Weinstein arranged for two auction items to be donated at an AIDS charity fundraiser, but a condition of the deal was that $600,000 of the proceeds had to go to a theater that staged a trial run of a musical produced by Weinstein.
Recently, the investigation expanded to include the possibility that Weinstein broke federal stalking laws in attempts to silence his accusers. These laws forbid crossing state lines to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate victims.
Weinstein’s law offices allegedly retained the services of Black Cube, a spy firm run by former Israeli intelligence analysts. Although lawyers routinely use private investigators, prosecutors are investigating whether the firm engaged in illegal harassment of Weinstein’s accusers.
But Really, Why Federal Investigation?
The primary allegations against Weinstein involve sexual misconduct, all of which is being sufficiently handled at the state level.
However, due in part to the lack of physical evidence of the alleged assaults, federal prosecutors appear to be using what has been described as an “Al Capone approach” to uncover wrongdoing—the feds infamous use of the IRS to nail the mobster on tax fraud violations.
Federal prosecutors, most of whom as conservative Republicans appointed by President Trump, are apparently trying to find any evidence of criminal wrongdoing against Weinstein, a well-known Democratic fundraiser, that may have some cosmic link to sexual misconduct allegations.
Federal criminal defense is much more complex than a defense against state prosecutions. The resources and privileges held by federal investigators are much more extensive, allowing them to uncover evidence of wrongdoing that would otherwise not be discovered in state investigations.
This has led experts to speculate that federal charges may be pressed as a kind of “backstop” in the event that Weinstein is acquitted of his sex crime charges in state courts. Because this is a high-profile case and Weinstein is a publicly reviled figure, prosecutors are under increased pressure to ensure that he is severely punished.
Although very few people are likely concerned about Weinstein’s well-being, getting federal investigators involved simply due to a defendant’s notoriety could set a dangerous precedent. Encouraging federal involvement simply as a backup plan in the event that state prosecution is unsuccessful could potentially pave the way to manufactured charges used as a smokescreen to allow federal prosecution in future cases.
For now, Weinstein’s legal fate remains unclear – but so do the potential long-term ramifications of unconventional approaches to federal prosecution we’re seeing right now.