Claims that Prince Andrew failed to respond to FBI likely political, say prosecutors

Photograph: Lindsey Parnaby/AFP via Getty Images

Claims made this week that Prince Andrew failed to respond to an FBI investigation into Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged sex trafficking conspiracy were likely issued by US investigators as an appeal for political support, former sex crime prosecutors say.

Earlier this week, US attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman took the extraordinary step of announcing from the steps of Epstein’s Upper East Side mansion in New York, that prosecutors and the FBI had repeatedly contacted the Duke of York’s lawyers to follow up on his previous pledge that he was “willing to help any appropriate law enforcement agency”.

“It’s fair for people to know whether Prince Andrew has followed through with that public commitment,” Berman said, adding that to date he had “provided zero cooperation”.

Related: Prince Andrew giving 'zero' cooperation to Epstein inquiry, say US prosecutors

Andrew, who has been removed from royal duties, was subsequently reported to be “angry and bewildered” over the claim he has failed to cooperate and denied that he’d been approached. Andrew is “more than happy to talk”, sources told the Guardian, pouring water on any suggestion that he was going back on a commitment to help.

Between the claims and counter-claims from the British royal and US law enforcement lies a broad expanse of uncertainty on how the investigation into alleged co-conspirators will proceed after wealthy financier Epstein killed himself in detention in August while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.

Despite Andrew’s assurances, any sit-down with US investigators would likely require political will to pursue effectively as much as legal argument, experts say, as the prince is a high profile international figure who lives overseas. And that political will might be unlikely to be forthcoming, argues former sex crimes prosecutor Wendy Murphy.

“At best they could issue a grand jury subpoena but to have it enforced is a political question. Even if they did charge him, how much effort would they put into extraditing him? That’s a nightmare on a good day. To enforce it in a foreign country you have to have permission of the foreign country and I don’t see the Queen saying, ‘Oh yes, we should force my son to submit himself to a foreign grand jury’,” Murphy said.

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Any FBI interview Andrew agrees to give would be voluntary at this stage. His lawyers would arrange a date, time and place , or he could provide answers to written questions. US investigators could interview him in Britain.

Eric Baum, of New York law firm Eisenberg & Baum, who has represented victims in civil sexual harassment cases against celebrity chef Mario Batali and American Apparel’s Dov Charney, says any meeting could place the prince in legal jeopardy.

“If he comes in under oath, he will be required to tell the truth and provide specific details which could have criminal and political implications for him,” Baum said.

The questions for Andrew – should he agree to testify under oath – would likely be tailored to information they already have on him, said former FBI agent Jane Mason.

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“The fascinating part of this is whether he could be charged with a federal crime. You have to assume that investigators have conducted many, many interviews and reviewed thousands of documents, so they’d know the answers to any questions they want to ask,” Mason said.

“The complicated part is that Andrew is overseas – prosecutors would have a lot more power to force an unwilling witness to testify here. But with added media pressure things might change. Failing to co-operate is not a good visual for him at all.”

A key element has been allegations from Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who has said Epstein pressured her into having sex with Andrew three times at Epstein’s request, including once in London in 2001.

Andrew has denied any knowledge that Epstein was sexually abusing teenage girls.. Andrew told the BBC in an interview he had “no recollection” of meeting Giuffre, and said on the night the alleged sex occurred he was at a Pizza Express in Woking.

But she remains a major facet of the investigation.

“I guarantee you she has more information, even if she hasn’t said it yet,” Murphy said. “No matter what, Andrew has got a king-size PR problem. That, to me, is why he’s been removed from royal duties. It’s to protect him, not punish him.”

Murphy worked with Paul Cassell, a Florida lawyer who represented several of Epstein’s alleged victims around the time the financier’s original federal investigation was resolved in a 2007 Florida state deal that required Epstein serve a brief sentence in Palm Beach .

At that time, she recalls, she believed political pressure was being brought to bear on the case. “It was represented as a plea deal that everyone was on board with, but it made a lot of people very anxious,” she said.

Thirteen years on, similar anxieties that permeated Epstein’s original deal exist now. Because of the high profiles of the men whose names have surfaced in connection with Epstein, any attempt to bring new charges is ultimately political.

“There are some ways to bring pressure to bear, but they’re more diplomatic than legal ... I don’t think there’s the political will to do it,” she added.

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