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Court agrees to delay testimony of Jeffrey Epstein confidant Ghislaine Maxwell in civil suit

Kuzma/iStockBy JAMES HILL, ABC NEWS

(NEW YORK) -- Ghislaine Maxwell, the former girlfriend and longtime associate of Jeffrey Epstein, has been granted at least a temporary reprieve from having to respond to questions in a civil lawsuit that alleges she committed sexual battery against a teenage girl, a federal magistrate judge ruled on Friday.

Maxwell, who has been accused in several lawsuits of facilitating or participating in Epstein's abuse of girls and young women, sought the delay because of an ongoing federal criminal investigation into Epstein's alleged co-conspirators and because a victims' compensation fund proposed by Epstein's estate is said to be nearing final approval.

"I'm permitting her not to respond to [written questions] and not to have her deposition," Magistrate Judge Debra Freeman said in her ruling from the bench. "Not forever, but at least long enough to let us know whether the claims process is likely to go forward."

Freeman made her ruling in a lawsuit filed against Maxwell and Epstein's estate last November by Annie Farmer. Farmer alleges that she was recruited and groomed by Epstein and Maxwell in 1996, and that Maxwell sexually assaulted her at Epstein's New Mexico ranch when Farmer was 16.

"Annie was extremely distressed and afraid. She was a child in a massive ranch in New Mexico, away from her family in Arizona, and isolated from any source of help. She was alone with Epstein and Maxwell," Farmer's complaint says.

An attorney for Farmer argued against the delay, noting the uncertainty surrounding the potential length of the criminal investigation.

"We have no indication of any time frame with respect to ... how long that investigation could go on," said Sigrid McCawley, the attorney for Farmer and four other victims suing Epstein's estate. "And to not be able to get discovery and ask Miss Maxwell questions ... that puts us in handcuffs with respect to being able to establish our claims."

Responding to those concerns, Freeman said she had "no desire to have this drag out" and asked to be updated in mid-June on the status of the investigation and the victims' claims program.

Maxwell, 58, has not been seen in public in several months and her whereabouts are unknown. She has denied Farmer's claims and the allegations that she facilitated Epstein's alleged crimes.

"She absolutely denies that she participated in this or any other sexual abuse or trafficking or assault, and no court, judge or jury has ever determined that she has," wrote Maxwell's attorney Laura Menninger in a letter to the court this week.

Menninger also claimed that the litigation was taking a financial toll on Maxwell.

"Unlike the estate, she is not a multi-millionaire and must self-fund her defense," she wrote.

In March, Maxwell filed her own lawsuit against the late financier's estate seeking reimbursement of her legal fees and personal security costs. She claims that Epstein had repeatedly made "clear and unambiguous" promises to always support her financially, according to her complaint.

Epstein died by suicide in jail last August, according to the New York City medical examiner, one month after his arrest on child sex trafficking and conspiracy charges. Epstein pleaded not guilty to the charges.

In court filings in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Farmer has indicated a willingness to take part in the voluntary claims program if it moves forward. Nearly 70 other alleged victims have also expressed an interest in participating in the program, which could resolve dozens of claims against the estate without litigation.

But the program's approval has been held up for months after Denise George, the attorney general for the Virgin Islands, filed criminal liens against Epstein's estate, effectively freezing all the assets of the $634 million estate worldwide. George has objected to some terms of the restitution plan, which she argued did not comply with the laws of the Virgin Islands or fully protect the rights of Epstein's victims.

In the court hearing Friday -- which was conducted by telephone due to the COVID-19 pandemic -- estate attorney Bennett Moskowitz said that the major issues have been resolved with the attorney general, and that he expects the program to be approved within a week.

"There are a few less contentious matters to iron out. But it is our firm expectation that by sometime next week, that resolution in principle will be formalized," Moskowitz said.

In a statement to ABC News Friday, George concurred that the parties are "near agreement upon the terms of the fund," which she said would be "a substantial improvement" from the original proposal from the estate. She said she remains opposed, however, to the estate's requirement that victims "sign broad releases to protect other individuals who sexually abused them." The estate has recently amended the release in an effort to address the attorney general's concerns.

"In the interest of allowing the program to move forward, the Attorney General's Office has been working further with estate counsel and the victims' attorneys on an agreement in principle, which is still being drafted," George said in the statement.

During the court hearing on Friday, Moskowitz also contended that some of the victims' attorneys were unnecessarily driving up the costs of litigation by demanding the estate search for and turn over documents that aren't relevant to their cases.

"Every dollar we're spending in the meantime is money that will never be available for that program," Moskowitz said.

McCawley had contended in court filings earlier this month that the estate had failed to produce even a single document in response to their discovery requests, and she had sought court intervention to require the estate to search for documents covering the entire time frame of Epstein's alleged abuse of young women and girls. The victims are seeking photographs, video and audio recordings from Epstein's airplanes and homes, financial records and communications with his alleged co-conspirators, employees and government officials that span a period of nearly two decades.

In court Friday, McCawley acknowledged that the estate had begun to produce some documents this week relating to her clients, but argued that other relevant evidence was improperly being withheld.

"Our position is that, with respect to our client's claims in each of the cases, information relating to Epstein's abuse of other victims is highly relevant," McCawley said. "The pattern of how he lured girls and then abused them is relevant to our clients."

Attorneys for the estate have countered that the victims' demands are disproportionate to the needs of the cases.

"If everything related to any allegedly bad thing Mr. Epstein ever did is relevant in each action, well, then it could take me six months or a year to finish looking for every piece of paper at every property Mr. Epstein owned," Moskowitz said Friday.

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