By MICHAEL BALSAMO, LARRY NEUMEISTER and TOM HAYS Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Two jail guards responsible for monitoring Jeffrey Epstein the night he killed himself were charged Tuesday with falsifying prison records to conceal they were sleeping and browsing the internet during the hours they were supposed to be keeping a close watch on prisoners.
Guards Toval Noel and Michael Thomas were accused in a grand jury indictment of neglecting their duties by failing to check on Epstein for nearly eight hours, and of fabricating log entries to show they had been making checks every 30 minutes, as required.
Prosecutors allege that instead of making their required rounds, the two guards sat at their desks, browsed the internet and walked around the unit’s common area. During one two-hour period, the indictment said, both appeared to have been asleep.
The charges against the officers are the first in connection with the wealthy financier’s death in August at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, where he had been awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.
The city’s medical examiner ruled Epstein’s death a suicide. Prosecutors said surveillance cameras confirmed that no one else entered the area in which he was housed.
“As alleged, the defendants had a duty to ensure the safety and security of federal inmates in their care at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. Instead, they repeatedly failed to conduct mandated checks on inmates, and lied on official forms to hide their dereliction,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said.
A lawyer for Thomas, Montell Figgins, said both guards are being “scapegoated.”
“We feel this a rush to judgment by the U.S. attorney’s office,” he said. “They’re going after the low man on the totem pole here.”
Both correctional officers were in federal custody pending an expected Tuesday afternoon court appearance. Noel’s lawyer didn’t immediately return a phone message.
Epstein’s death was a major embarrassment for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
The cell where he died was in a high-security unit, famous for having held terrorists and drug cartel kingpins. Epstein’s death, though, revealed the jail was suffering from problems including chronic staffing shortages that lead to mandatory overtime for guards day after day and other staff being pressed into service as correctional officers.
Attorney General William Barr had previously said investigators found “serious irregularities” at the jail and the FBI’s investigation had been slowed because some witnesses were uncooperative.
Epstein had been placed on suicide watch after he was found July 23 on the floor of his cell with a strip of bedsheet around his neck.
The indictment said he was on that watch for 24 hours before he was moved to psychological observation until July 30, several days before his death.
Prosecutors had wanted the guards to admit they falsified the prison records as part of a plea offer that they rejected, according to people familiar with the matter. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to publicly discuss the investigation.
Federal prosecutors had subpoenaed up to 20 staff members at the jail in August. The case was a top priority for the Justice Department. Both Barr and Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen received regular updates.
Falsification of records has been a problem throughout the federal prison system.
Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, who was named director of the Bureau of Prisons after Epstein’s death, disclosed in an internal memo earlier this month that a review of operations across the agency found some staff members failed to perform required rounds and inmate counts but logged that they had done so anyway. A copy of the memo was obtained by the AP.
Epstein’s death ended the possibility of a trial that would have involved prominent figures and sparked widespread anger that he wouldn’t have to answer for the allegations.
He had pleaded not guilty and was preparing to argue that he could not be charged because of a 2008 deal he made to avoid federal prosecution on similar allegations.
Epstein’s death prompted a whirl of conspiracy theories from people, including members of Epstein’s family and some of his alleged victims, who questioned whether it was possible that he’d killed himself in such a high-security setting.
Officials have said there is no basis for those suspicions.
Associated Press reporter Michael R. Sisak contributed to this report. Balsamo reported from Washington.