In a life of wealth, sex crimes and deal-making, Jeffrey Epstein commanded attention.
So did his 7,759-acre Zorro Ranch in Santa Fe County.
Eight months after Epstein hanged himself in a jail cell after being charged with sex trafficking of girls in New York and Florida, the ranch remains controversial.
Its centerpiece is a hilltop mansion covering 26,700 square feet. It contains four of the 26 bedrooms distributed throughout a compound. The rest are spread across seven more dwellings, according to Santa Fe County tax records.
Yet the value of that land is listed by the county government at only $10,000.
Santa Fe resident David Brown says the Assessor’s Office had a practice of undervaluing Epstein’s property, handing tax breaks to a tainted but powerful man.
“Epstein’s land is valued at 10K. My tiny Vista Primera lot is valued at 72K,” Brown said.
Santa Fe County Assessor Gus Martinez told me Brown’s comparison is statistically correct but deceptive.
“You’ve got to look at the total value of the property,” Martinez said.
Brown and I have done that.
The assessor last year valued the structures on Epstein’s ranch at $15.68 million. Agricultural land was worth another $40,819.
Altogether, that gave Epstein’s ranch a value of $15.74 million. His real estate taxes for 2019 were $109,577.
Martinez said the ranch’s value and taxes are projected to increase a bit this year, even with the coronavirus pandemic devastating the economy.
Brown isn’t appeased by the assessor’s explanation.
In 2010, with the country in a recession, Epstein’s ranch had a value of almost $20 million.
For tax purposes, the valuation dropped by $5 million in succeeding years before starting a slight climb.
Brown’s theory is that Epstein’s power and political connections kept the ranch from receiving much attention or a proper tax bill.
Epstein in 1993 bought land in Stanley for what would become his ranch.
The seller was Bruce King, who was New Mexico’s sitting governor and one of the state’s legendary politicians. King, a Democrat, served longer as governor than anyone in New Mexico history. He held the office for 12 years.
Epstein, who made millions managing a hedge fund, didn’t have the calloused hands of a rancher.
But longhorn cattle grazed on his property, accounting for most of the compound being taxed at a rate for agricultural uses.
This is why Brown’s single-home lot is valued at nearly twice the amount of some 7,700 acres that Epstein owned.
By no standard was Epstein’s property a typical ranch. It had an aircraft hangar and a landing strip. Butlers worked in the mansion. Guesthouses dotted the grounds.
A winner on Wall Street, Epstein had access to politicians who dwarfed King’s stature. Epstein was friendly with two men who became president, Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
But all politics is local. Epstein contributed cash to candidates seeking a variety of offices in New Mexico.
Democrat Bill Richardson, who was governor from 2003-10, received $50,000 in campaign contributions from Epstein.
Richardson sent the money to charity after Epstein in 2007 was ensnared in his first scandal alleging sex crimes. Many other politicians dissociated from Epstein at that point.
Police in Palm Beach, Fla., and FBI agents investigated complaints that Epstein had recruited girls as young as 13 to have sex with him in his waterfront mansion.
The federal government declined to prosecute Epstein. Instead he pleaded guilty to two state charges of soliciting prostitution, one for procuring a girl younger than 18.
Epstein received a sentence of 18 months in jail. It turned out to be much lighter.
He was allowed to go to his office in Palm Beach on a work-release program. A judge freed Epstein after he had served 13 months.
Alex Acosta was the U.S. attorney who declined to pursue federal charges against Epstein in Florida. Acosta went on to serve as Trump’s secretary of labor from 2017-19.
On becoming a Cabinet secretary, Acosta would say the case against Epstein was not airtight. The Florida plea bargain at least labeled Epstein as a sex offender, Acosta said.
Federal prosecutors last July brought a new round of sex-trafficking charges against Epstein. They accused him of preying on teenage girls in Florida and New York.
Epstein said all his sexual encounters were consensual, and he believed his partners were at least 18.
No jury heard the evidence. Epstein, 66, killed himself before the case could proceed.
Epstein was never accused of committing crimes in New Mexico. But the allegations against him in the East refocused attention on his ranch and what might have happened there.
Martinez, the assessor, says Epstein’s money and influence didn’t matter in New Mexico.
Certain judgment calls had to be made regarding Epstein’s property, but no public employee did anything wrong, Martinez said.
Setting the value of Epstein’s property was difficult from the start, the assessor added.
“There was not a house that big in the state of New Mexico. We had nothing to compare it to,” the assessor said.
At one point, Epstein protested the taxable value of his ranch and mansion as excessive. This lessened his tax burden.
Martinez told of other factors that worked in favor of Epstein.
His mansion showed wear, such as cracking walls, that dropped the value. After the reductions, state law was an obstacle to raising Epstein’s taxes even as real estate prices escalated.
Unless a property has been upgraded or expanded, taxes can increase no more than 3 percent annually.
“We are doing work with our hands tied behind our back,” Martinez said.
To be sure, tax bills are insignificant compared to charges of a man preying on teenage girls.
Epstein’s suicide turned the case cold.
His remains are in a Florida cemetery. Most of what happened in New Mexico is buried with him.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-986-3080.