Back in 2002, when I was reporting on Jeffrey Epstein’s finances for Vanity Fair magazine, he was not a household name. During that time, I paid a visit to the Federal Medical Center, Devens in Devens, Massachusetts, to meet with an inmate, one Steven Hoffenberg.
We sat in a little room near a recreation area, Hoffenberg dressed in the requisite orange jumpsuit, while I, several months pregnant with twins, was dressed per prison requirements: as shapelessly as possible.
It was an absolutely intriguing meeting.
Hoffenberg was serving 18 years in prison for committing a $450 million Ponzi scheme. In the 1980s, he’d been running Towers Financial, a debt collection and reinsurance business, and had worked alongside Epstein, who was a paid consultant. Hoffenberg told me that Epstein had plans to turn Towers into a global colossus — through illegal means.
But Hoffenberg was so transfixed by Epstein and his ideas that he had even paid the rent for Epstein’s office space. (Now, he says, he was “stupid” and greedy for doing so.)
Hoffenberg told me with a sad grin that he represented a problem for Epstein because while they were working together, Epstein had confided in him as to how, exactly, he made a career out of conning people and institutions — not least because the idea was that they’d do it together.
Hoffenberg said that Epstein had a term for the perfect execution of the grift. He called it “playing the box,” which meant that he ensured that even if his crime was uncovered, the victim would be unable to do anything about it, either because of social embarrassment or because the money was tucked away in a place where they couldn’t either find it or get it.
(What Hoffenberg had failed to realize, he told me, is that Epstein would con him. Epstein would take $100 million of Towers money, move it offshore, and meanwhile cooperate with U.S. prosecutors against Hoffenberg, who was unable to do anything about this because he’d pleaded guilty, which meant there was no trial — and therefore no discovery.)
I can’t prove all of Hoffenberg’s claims — but some of them are accurate.
I have discovered, for example, that Epstein certainly did secretly cooperate against Hoffenberg and gave at least three interviews to prosecutors, and that had the case gone to trial, a source with knowledge says it would have likely turned out far worse for Epstein than for Hoffenberg.
Hoffenberg also knew something else Epstein wanted hidden, according to Hoffenberg: He claimed that Epstein moved in intelligence circles.
The Hoffenberg-Epstein relationship was not something Epstein, then pitching himself to Vanity Fair as a money-manager extraordinaire for billionaires only, had volunteered to me.
So when I gingerly raised Hoffenberg to Epstein, and mentioned I had documentation showing that the two were linked, the financier turned really nasty.
He maintained he hardly knew Hoffenberg, he’d just consulted briefly on a couple of deals, that he’d not been involved in any prosecution of Hoffenberg and that if I wrote any different, things would turn out badly for me. Here is exactly what he said:
“If there’s any implication of wrong doing, I will take legal action against you personally. I’m telling you so you understand. I will be as harsh as I possibly can personally … not for the magazine, but you, because I had this discussion with you. This relationship is with you.… You shouldn’t risk your future for a job.”
Now, Epstein’s “sensitivity” regarding Hoffenberg was equal to his sensitivity on what he called “the girls.”
He went berserk if you mentioned either subject.
In hindsight, one has to wonder if Hoffenberg presented an equally big problem as “the girls” would. Hoffenberg told me that in the 1980s, after Epstein left Bear Sterns in ignominious circumstances, Epstein was trained in moving money off-shore and that a mentor of Epstein’s was someone Hoffenberg knew: a British defense contractor, who died in 2011, named Douglas Leese.
Hoffenberg claimed that Leese was an arms dealer. (Leese’s son Julian says that is not true.) But the U.K. parliamentary record does mention Leese in reference to the El Yammamah arms deal of the early 1980s.
I remember distinctly that in our first meeting Hoffenberg told me that Leese was pivotal in understanding Jeffrey’s MO, because Leese had introduced him not only to aristocratic Europeans (who Epstein subsequently fleeced) but to all sorts of people in the arms business — including the late Turkish-born businessman Adnan Kashoggi — and, allegedly, the late media mogul Robert Maxwell.
Back in 2002 I didn’t pay much attention to this.
This was because Epstein breezily threw me off.
First, Epstein told me he’d never met Maxwell. And I asked him twice if he knew Leese, whom I had never heard of, and Epstein said no. The second time, he elaborated:
“Douglas Leese … I think he was the father of somebody I knew … I think his son was friendly with Ferranti, that’s where that whole crowd comes in that you asked me about a long time ago. I think his name was Nicholas … it was sort of that 66th Street building, I think they might have all lived there.”
So, I forgot about Leese. And I didn’t bother to pursue the notion that Epstein had known Maxwell.
But all these years later, Leese’s name popped up again in my new reporting for a podcast and a documentary series about Maxwell’s daughter Ghislaine, who is currently awaiting trial on charges of helping Epstein in his alleged sex-trafficking operations of minors. (She has denied all charges.)
First, I found a lawsuit filed by Leese in Florida, in which he asserted that he “was involved with various highly confidential business enterprises including business in the United States, some of which involved governmentally- involved or other highly confidential business projects.”
Second, a source who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of what was discussed told me that Epstein had invited the source to join him and Leese on a private-jet trip to the Pentagon in 1981.
Even Leese’s son Julian told me that his father was a mentor of sorts to Epstein in the 1980s and was totally shocked that Epstein would have pretended not to know him.
So why Epstein’s silence on Leese?
And was his denial about knowing Robert Maxwell equally meaningless?
What about the spy stuff?
Hoffenberg told me that Epstein had said he’d worked on several projects with Robert Maxwell, including solving Maxwell’s “debt” issues. (Maxwell died in 1991, under vey strange circumstances, apparently having fallen off his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, in the middle of the night and it was discovered in the aftermath that he’d stolen 100s of millions of dollars from the pensions of his employees.)
Epstein had also told Hoffenberg that via Maxwell and Leese he was involved in something that Hoffenberg described as “national security issues,” which he says involved “blackmail, influence trading, trading information at a level that is very serious and dangerous.”
So here’s where it gets tricky.
Four separate sources told me — on the record — that Epstein’s dealings in the arms world in the 1980s had led him to work for multiple governments, including the Israelis.
Some of these sources are more reliable than others. But the gist of the claims that you will be able to hear, and ultimately watch in a three-hour documentary series, is that Maxwell, who was himself a conduit between the Israelis and other governments during his life time, introduced Epstein to Israeli leaders, who then allegedly used Epstein as the equivalent of an old-fashioned Russian “sleeper,” someone who could be useful in an “influence campaign.”
The sources, who range from former arms dealers to former spies — and also Hoffenberg — suggest that Epstein, who lacked any sort of moral compass, decided to go one step further and compromise influential people by recording them doing things they wouldn’t want made public.
All of this is completely unprovable. And people close to Robert Maxwell say it sounds ridiculous.
But here’s what’s odd.
First, Epstein did visit Israel in 2008, with a view to moving there permanently and avoid his jail time in 2009 for the state charges he was convicted of. On his return, he told Russian model Kira Diktyar that he’d changed his mind and decided to face the music. (He didn’t mention he’d avoided a far more serious federal investigation, thanks to a cushy non-prosecution agreement.)
And once he got out of jail, in the last 10 years of his life, Epstein bragged to various people, including journalists, that he was advising a whole assortment of foreign leaders who included Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Zayed, Mohammed Bin Salman, various African dictators, Israel, the British — and, of course, the Americans.
He also told several of the same people that he was making a fortune out of arms, drugs, and diamonds.
He told one person, journalist Edward J. Epstein, that he knew the owner of the deep-water port of Djibouti on the horn of Africa, a smuggler’s paradise, so well that he was basically in charge of it.
Now, according to my sources in the intelligence world, this is hyperbole — but also not completely ridiculous. His name was mentioned as a middleman in both Africa and the Middle East. He was known in the intelligence world as a “hyper-fixer,” somebody who can go between different cultures and networks.
Usually these people are very silent about what they do.
And yet Epstein was not silent. He had a photo of the Saudi crown prince, MBS on the wall, and photos of Bill Gates and all the VIPS who flocked to his salons.
It’s not wholly surprising therefore that the same sources who say they know he was some sort of intelligence asset say that he became a liability — which is why, possibly, he lost any “protection” and was arrested.
A handful of people I interviewed, including former Mossad agent Victor Ostrovsky, maintain that this is exactly what happened to Robert Maxwell, which is why, they say, Maxwell was killed. His financial problems were about to make him vulnerable. (His death was officially said to be because of a heart attack.)
Who knows what to make of all this?
But, when I think back to 2002, when I first met Steve Hoffenberg, I do remember asking him why he thought that Epstein, normally reclusive, had raised his head above the parapet and attracted media attention by flying Bill Clinton to Africa.
Hoffenberg had smiled.
“He can’t help himself. He broke his own rule,” Hoffenberg said. “He always said he knew the only way he could get away with everything he did was to stay under the radar, but now he’s gone and blown it.”
Vicky Ward is the host of the Audible Original podcast “Chasing Ghislaine,”.