By ROBERT BARR
The Associated Press
Monday, March 7, 2011; 7:11 PM
LONDON -- Prince Andrew and his ex-wife Sarah are in the spotlight for their ties to a wealthy U.S. sex offender - he for being pictured with an underage masseuse at the man's home and she for accepting money from the American to help pay off her massive debts.
Andrew's ex-wife, Sarah, Duchess of York, confirmed in an interview Monday in the Evening Standard newspaper that she did receive financial help from convicted U.S. sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. But she claimed to have known nothing about his background and vowed to repay the 15,000 pounds ($24,500) he advanced to settle a debt to her former personal assistant, Johnny O'Sullivan.
"I am just so contrite I cannot say," the duchess was quoted as saying. "Whenever I can I will repay the money and will have nothing ever to do with Jeffrey Epstein ever again."
The payment was handled through Andrew's office, the duchess said, and she wasn't directly involved. There was no immediate comment from Andrew's office.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron gave his backing to Andrew, who has also been under fire for hosting the son of Tunisia's dictator shortly before a popular uprising overthrew the leader and his relationship with Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, one of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's sons.
Some politicians had urged that the prince be sacked from his position as the U.K. trade envoy, although Business Secretary Vince Cable noted that the government had no power to fire him - he's a volunteer, not an employee.
Over the weekend, British newspapers carried photographs of Andrew with his arm around a young woman who now claims to be one of Epstein's underage victims. There has been no suggestion, however, that Andrew was involved in inappropriate relationships with underage women.
Asked whether Cameron had full confidence in the prince, spokesman Steve Field said "yes."
"The prime minister thinks he is doing an important job and is making a major contribution and he is supportive of him in that role," Field said. "We are not reviewing that role in any way."
The comments from Cameron's office appeared at odds with an earlier statement from Cable, who told the British Broadcasting Corp. that "obviously there are conversations that will take place with him (Andrew) about what he is to do in future."
Andrew draws no pay for his trade promotion work, but his expenses are paid by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. Expenses in 2007, the latest year available, were 128,000 pounds.
The government rounded up a string of endorsements for the prince from British business leaders, including Royal Dutch Shell's managing director, Malcolm Brinded; Peter Levene, chairman of Lloyd's of London; and Sir John Rose, chief executive of Rolls Royce Group.
"As first a diplomat and then as a banker, I have seen at first hand the tangible benefits which have flowed from the work of the duke of York," said Sir Thomas Harris, vice chairman of Standard Chartered Capital Markets.
Mike Gapes, a senior opposition Labour Party lawmaker, said Monday that Parliament could not hold Andrew to account because he is a royal.
"We can't ask questions about the truth of the allegations that were in the newspapers and elsewhere. I think his position is untenable," Gapes said in a BBC interview.
Epstein pleaded guilty in 2008 to two prostitution offenses in Florida, and was sentenced to 18 months in prison and a further year under house arrest. Prosecutors said Epstein paid several girls younger than 18 for naked massages that sometimes became sexual encounters.
Much of the controversy in Andrew's life has involved his marriage to Sarah in 1986 and their divorce 10 years later. They have two daughters. A key moment in the break up was the publication of photographs of a topless Sarah being kissed by a boyfriend.
Since then, the duchess has made and lost large sums of money, and she got into more trouble last year after an undercover newspaper reporter filmed her apparently offering to sell access to her ex-husband in return for 500,000 pounds ($724,000).
In Monday's interview, she said with Andrew's help she had settled all of her debts, which had been estimated at around 5 million pounds ($8.1 million).
"I have made another huge error in my life in order to get debt free but the duke and I are a united front on all that has happened over the last few days," the Evening Standard quoted her as saying. "He, my girls and I are a unit who will always stick together even though we live separate lives."
The duchess said she had made "a terrible, terrible error of judgment" in accepting help from Epstein, though she said she had no direct contact with him.
"Once again, my errors have compounded and rebounded and also inadvertently impacted on the man I admire most in the world - the duke (Andrew)," she said. "He has supported me and come to my rescue again and again and there is absolutely nothing that I would not do for him."