The financial relationship between Epstein, the late multimillionaire whose sources of wealth remain largely murky, and Maxwell, the British socialite whose newspaper tycoon father died just before being implicated in a massive pension fraud scandal, has long been difficult to decipher.
The two ran in the rarefied world of billionaire bankers and society figures, but it was unclear how either came to have the means to support such a lifestyle.
Epstein billed himself as a money manager to billionaires, but it was not apparent that he had any clients besides Leslie Wexner, the founder and chairman of Victoria's Secret parent company L Brands, who took the unusual step of granting Epstein power of attorney and who later accused him of having "misappropriated vast sums" from Wexner and his family. Maxwell has said in court papers that Epstein pledged to "always support" her financially.
On Thursday, after charging Maxwell with recruiting, grooming and sexually abusing underage girls as young as 14 as part of Epstein's alleged yearslong criminal enterprise, federal prosecutors disclosed that for a five-year period beginning in 2007, Maxwell and Epstein exchanged more than $20 million dollars between their bank accounts, with the sums going first from Epstein to Maxwell, and then back to Epstein.
An attorney for Maxwell, Jeffrey S. Pagliuca, didn't respond to a request for comment. She and her representatives had previously denied she engaged in sexual abuse or sex trafficking.
Legal experts said the transfers raise questions about whether those were legitimate payments or were used to mask illegal conduct.
"The fact that she and he would exchange so much money indicates that they had a very close business relationship and that he clearly trusted her with a phenomenal amount of money," said Duncan Levin, a former federal prosecutor who handled money laundering and asset forfeiture cases in the Brooklyn US Attorney's office.
"There may be a completely innocent explanation for it, but it definitely is a sinister data point," Levin said. He suggested that the lack of additional information provided by prosecutors about the transfers may mean they don't yet know their significance but sought to flag for the judge the "odd-looking" behavior.
Shan Wu, a CNN legal analyst and criminal defense lawyer, said the transactions "that arouse my suspicions are the large transfers in the millions between her accounts and Epstein's accounts, which raises the question, is there some kind of laundering going on?"
"Is that her salary? Otherwise why would he need to be transferring such large amounts of money between their accounts? If it's private transfers, that's very odd," Wu said. He said he suspects prosecutors are looking to see where the money trail leads and if it ties into some of the still-unanswered questions about how Epstein funded university donations, among other transfers.
Prosecutors also detailed transfers they said Maxwell made between her own accounts. Sin