In a move that increases the likelihood Harvey Weinstein will face criminal charges, federal prosecutors in New York have opened an investigation into whether the disgraced Hollywood producer's alleged acts of sexual abuse violated federal laws, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The U.S. attorney's office of the Southern District of New York has begun investigating Weinstein, seeking to examine whether the mogul lured or induced women to travel across state lines for purposes of committing sexual crimes, said the sources, who were not authorized to comment publicly.
"Mr. Weinstein has always maintained that he has never engaged in nonconsensual sexual acts," said his attorneys Blair Berk and Benjamin Brafman in a statement.
Federal prosecutors have quietly operated in the shadows of investigations by police and prosecutors in Los Angeles and New York.
As part of their case, prosecutors are said to be using a 1910 law known as the Mann Act, which was intended to combat debauchery and prostitution.
"This isn't a frequently used law. The Mann Act is about transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes," said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola law professor and former federal prosecutor of the early 20th century law. "It is really a reach … it is back to the future."
Representatives of the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment.
Weinstein has been accused by more 80 women of misdeeds including sexual harassment and rape. Police in New York, L.A., Beverly Hills and London have conducted investigations into more than 20 allegations.
Federal prosecutors are also examining whether any of the financial transactions related to the alleged sexual abuse amount to fraud. Weinstein's use of company money and a potential cover-up are also being examined by local prosecutors in New York. Several sources said that given the lack of physical evidence supporting sexual assault allegations against Weinstein, prosecutors are pursuing an almost Al Capone approach — the infamous mobster was finally undone over violating federal tax laws.
Nearly eight months after the New York Times first revealed widespread allegations of sexual abuse against Weinstein, local and federal prosecutors are increasingly in competition to build a case against the once-powerful Hollywood executive, according to two sources familiar with the investigations.
The Manhattan district attorney's office has said it is in the advanced stage of its review of the allegations. NYPD bosses have publicly said they would seek to arrest Weinstein if he was in New York.
While the district attorney's office in New York is limited in its approach by rules of evidence, federal prosecutors have more latitude to introduce evidence of a suspect's propensity to commit a sexual crime.
Brafman told the Wall Street Journal he had already met with federal prosecutors in Manhattan in an attempt to dissuade them from investigating. The Journal first revealed the federal investigation Wednesday.
A source familiar with the investigation, however, said the federal inquiry has been ongoing for at least a couple of months. Alleged victims in the Los Angeles County accusations have not been contacted by federal authorities, according to people familiar with those cases.
L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey's team has been reviewing two investigations by Beverly Hills police into Weinstein, and three LAPD investigations of the producer, including an Italian actress' allegation of rape in 2013.
According to law enforcement sources, detectives believe that case is promising for prosecution because the woman told her story to three people, including a priest, relatively soon after the alleged attack.
LAPD detectives also have obtained bills showing the woman was a guest at the Beverly Hills hotel where she claims Weinstein attacked her, said the sources, who were not authorized to discuss the case publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.