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Private investigator sues Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown over Jeffrey Epstein book deal

David Ovalle
·4 min read

A private investigator who spent years probing disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein is suing Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown, claiming she stiffed him out of money from lucrative book and TV deals stemming from her award-winning series, Perversion of Justice.

Michael Fisten filed a claim in arbitration court, his lawyer said Wednesday, arguing that Brown violated a “collaboration agreement” they had struck to share proceeds from a book she was writing. They had signed an agreement in May 2019, according to a copy of the contract, almost six months after Brown’s initial series ran in the Miami Herald.

Brown went on leave from the newspaper in January to work on the book, which is not a Miami Herald project.

A few months after their agreement, according to the complaint, Brown signed a $1 million contract with Harper Collins for her pending book on Epstein, who victimized dozens of underage girls in a scandal that garnered international headlines. Fisten and Brown split an initial $300,000 payment from the publishing giant, the complaint says, but Fisten contends he has received no other money since and was cut out of a separate deal with HBO that he was entitled to.

Brown’s lawyer, Jeff Sonn, denies the investigator is owed anything from the HBO deal under the contract, which says Fisten is not entitled to “motion picture or television rights based on the work.”

“Mr. Fisten’s case and his suit are built on smoke and mirrors,” Sonn said in a statement. “This is a simple contract dispute, period.”

Brown also plans to countersue Fisten. Sonn said Fisten violated the contract by working as a consultant for a Netflix series on Epstein, giving those producers information that was supposed to be exclusive for the book. She also maintains that Fisten “provided almost nothing new that was substantive for the book,” Sonn’s statement said.

Rick Hirsch, the Herald’s interim executive editor, said in a statement: “This is a private business matter and the Miami Herald has no involvement in it. We’re delighted that Julie Brown returned to the Miami Herald this week from an extended book leave that began last January.”

The contract between Fisten and Brown, filed Tuesday along with the investigator’s lawsuit, does not mention the Miami Herald or work related to the newspaper. In his claim, Fisten is asking the court to award him $750,000 and issue an injunction preventing Brown from “infringing” on his copyrights under their contract.

Perversion of Justice dissected the decision by South Florida federal authorities to not prosecute Epstein, the well-connected multi-millionaire who sex-trafficked in underage girls for years but escaped any serious prison time. As part of a deal with the U.S. attorney’s office, Epstein served a little over a year on state charges in the Palm Beach stockade, where he enjoyed work-release privileges.

Miami Herald investigative reporter Julie K. Brown.
Miami Herald investigative reporter Julie K. Brown.

The series, which first ran in November 2018, also chronicled the suffering of the victims suing Epstein, and drew on documents obtained as part of the litigation filed by attorney Brad Edwards. Fisten began investigating Epstein in 2009 as part of Edwards’ team.

Fisten, a former Miami-Dade police sergeant, is not quoted in the original Perversion of Justice series but Edwards was featured prominently. Fisten did appear in at least two video interviews with the Miami Herald, one with the original series and one in August 2019 following Epstein’s suicide.

Richard C. Wolfe, Fisten’s lawyer, said his client deserved more of the credit for uncovering Epstein’s crimes.

“She has received numerous awards, which she would have not received, but for the contributions of Fisten,” Wolfe said in a statement Wednesday.

Perversion of Justice had an immediate and extraordinary impact. In July 2019, New York federal prosecutors arrested Epstein on sex-trafficking charges. Six days later, Alex Acosta — who as South Florida’s U.S. Attorney blessed the sweetheart plea deal — resigned as President Donald Trump’s labor secretary. Epstein himself committed suicide in a New York federal detention center, authorities said.

Fisten’s claim was made public on the same day Brown and Miami Herald visual journalist Emily Michot are slated to receive an award from the First Amendment Foundation for their work on the series. It’s one of numerous awards given the Herald series.

Brown herself has previously received two George Polk Awards for Justice Reporting. She was also named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020 and won the Hillman Foundation award for journalism for the common good.