This March 28, 2017, file photo shows Jeffrey Epstein. Credit: Courtesy of the New York State Sex Offender

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WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Tuesday kept alive a citizen muckraker’s quest to pry loose for the public’s benefit tens of thousands of FBI documents about disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, including his time as a government informant.

Self-styled public information crusader Angela Clemente sued in May, seeking to force the FBI to release the documents on the grounds that Epstein is now dead, albeit under mysterious circumstances, and that there is an overarching public interest in releasing documents. The Justice Department, representing the FBI, is fighting the effort.

In a status hearing Tuesday morning, Judge Trevor N. McFadden, who sits on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, allowed Clemente’s public-records lawsuit to continue. But he also put both sides on notice that he expected some agreement when they come before him again on Oct. 23.

Arguing against a broad document release, Assistant U.S Attorney Brenda Gonzalez Horowitz told the judge the FBI had already released more than 10,000 documents and is likely to invoke an exemption from releasing thousands of additional documents under the Freedom of Information Act, citing a provision that allows records to be kept private during ongoing prosecutions or investigations.

Clemente’s lawyer, James “Jim” Lesar, told McFadden that the FBI continues to sit on documents for which it had already cited other provisions that effectively waived privacy protections. And in any event, Epstein is dead, and the public has a right to know about Epstein’s relationship with the FBI.

“There’s a national and global press interest in this case, and the press has the right to know now, not a year from now, what those documents … say,” Lesar argued.

Documents released more than a decade ago, he argued, established that Epstein was given a light sentence in Florida when accused of sex crimes against underage girls and in exchange agreed to become an informant.

“Of utmost interest to the public is how much Epstein was being paid for his informant activities,” Lesar argued, citing unverified claims that Epstein had ties to drug traffickers and organized crime. “The taxpayers have a right to know immediately what their money was being spent on.”

Multiple news reports in late February said that a top Justice Department official was taken by surprise during a closed-door congressional briefing when lawmakers demanded to know if the FBI maintained a relationship with Epstein.

A model-turned-investigative paralegal, Clemente is an unconventional crusader. She wants access to records for her decade-long investigation into the deaths of young women in Ohio and a purported sex trafficking ring that brought underage girls to and from Palm Beach.

That’s where Epstein kept one of his many homes. Ohio is where Leslie Wexner, the founder of the L Brands empire, lives and where a key chapter of Epstein’s storied rise to fortune occurred.

No public documents tie either Wexner or Epstein to the missing girls, but Clemente alleges that state and federal officials in Ohio have failed to properly investigate the murders. At least one of Epstein’s accusers has told authorities she was abused in Ohio.

Clemente’s lawyer wants the FBI to produce documents at a pace of 5,000 a month, something that’s not possible, the assistant U.S. attorney told the judge.

“There is just a voluminous set of documents,” Gonzalez Horowitz said, adding that “the process takes a lot of time.”

When Lesar tried to insist his request was reasonable, the judge cut him short.

“I am not going to order that, we’re going to proceed the way I propose,” McFadden said, ordering instead that the two sides agree on a new set of about 100 FBI documents identified as releasable when they come before him again next month.

Although Clemente didn’t get the blanket release she continues to seek, she was undeterred.

“I will not be lessening or limiting what I am asking for and the records that they are trying to say are already available in the FBI vault are NOT responsive to my request or lawsuit,” Clemente said after the hearing.

The judge also issued a warning Tuesday to the Justice Department that It had one shot to convince him why the law says the documents shouldn’t be released. He said he would not preside over multiple hearings.

“If I deny that motion you should realize there is the potential that we’re going to trial,” he said.

The Justice Department is likely taking Clemente seriously. She achieved a measure of fame for her dogged pursuit of FBI records regarding mobsters who were on the FBI payroll, even as they murdered rivals. Her digging, featured in a New York Times long profile of her in June 2013, led to the indictment of an FBI agent alleged to have protected mob bosses.

And she was linked to another big law enforcement matter. One of Clemente’s mob sources correctly informed her that Terry Nichols, the co-conspirator in the homegrown terror bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995, had confided that the FBI had missed a cache of explosives hidden in his home in Herington, Kansas, and that the two bombers had accomplices.

Clemente’s suit against the FBI is just one of many potentially overlapping legal matters. The attorney general of the U.S. Virgin Islands has brought a civil racketeering case against the Epstein estate, which is also being settled in a court there.

Epstein’s alleged madam, Ghislaine Maxwell, was arrested in July in New Hampshire and awaits federal trial. She is trying to block the release of a deposition she gave in a civil suit, settled in 2017, with an Epstein accuser, arguing it will prejudice her federal case.

The Miami Herald has sued for the release of all documents in that settled case and a district judge ruled in the Herald’s favor but an appeal is scheduled for next month.

Story by Kevin G. Hall, Miami Herald.