A federal judge has ruled that Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta, when he was a U.S. attorney in Miami, broke the law in a sex trafficking case against a billionaire New York hedge fund manager by not informing his underage sex victims of a plea agreement.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Mirra on Thursday gave federal prosecutors 15 days to respond to his ruling involving Jeffrey Epstein, who counted such powerful figures as Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Prince Andrew among his friends.
The judge could go so far as to vacate the plea deal or could demand that the government reach a settlement with the complainants, Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 1, although they have not sought money or damages.
Epstein, 66, was accused in 2008 of organizing a network of underage girls to engage in sex acts at his Palm Beach waterfront mansion. Epstein also allegedly enlisted girls to recruit even more victims, some of whom would travel with him on his private jet to New York and his private island resort in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Under the terms of the plea deal, Epstein was convicted in state court of soliciting an underage girl for prostitution. But a Miami Herald investigation by reporter Julie K. Brown in November noted that the allegations against Epstein were originally much broader, accusing him of coercing dozens of underage girls into sex acts.
The Herald reports it was able to identify 80 victims – many between 13-16 years of age at the time – who said Epstein had sexually abused or molested them between 2001-2006. Eight of them agreed to be interviewed by the Herald, four on video.
The most immediate impact of the judge’s ruling could be political, adding pressure on Acosta. The Herald’s report portrays Acosta, who was the top federal prosecutor in Miami from 2005-2009, as malleable and nearly complicit in agreeing to a 2007 plea deal with Epstein.
In a statement, the Labor Department on Thursday cited the Justice Department’s long-standing defense of Acosta’s handling of the case.
“For more than a decade, the actions of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida in this case have been defended by the Department of Justice in litigation across three administrations and several attorneys general,” the statement said. “The office’s decisions were approved by departmental leadership and followed departmental procedures.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Friday that the administration is “looking into the matter.”
“My understanding is that’s a very complicated case … but that they made the best possible decision and deal they could have gotten at that time,” she added.
Instead of a lengthy sentence that could have resulted from the 53-page federal indictment he was facing, Epstein pleaded guilty to two prostitution charges and served 13 months in Palm Beach county jail, where he was allowed to leave on work release for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week.
The agreement worked out by Acosta “essentially shut down an ongoing FBI probe’’ that had already discovered 36 victims and could have unveiled other powerful participants in Esptein’s sex crimes, the Herald reported.
Prominent politicians, led by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., weighed in quickly to demand an investigation of Acosta’s role in the plea deal.
At the request of Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., the Justice Department opened an investigation in February into the handling of the case.
“Jeffrey Epstein is a monster and his victims deserve justice,” said Sasse, a member of the Senate Judiciary committee, on the court’s ruling. “I’m relieved that the court agrees that it was wrong to hide this child rapist’s pathetically soft deal from his victims, in violation of federal law. The fact that it’s taken this long to get this far is heartbreaking and infuriating.”
He called for the Justice Department to reopen the case “so that Epstein and anyone else who abused these children are held accountable.”
During his 2017 confirmation hearing for secretary of Labor, Acosta responded to questions about the Epstein case by saying that his office chose not to prosecute the case because he believed that the young victims were too scared to testify.
“At the end of the day, based on the evidence, professionals within a prosecutor’s office decided that a plea that guarantees someone goes to jail, that guarantees he register (as a sex offender) generally, and guarantees other outcomes, is a good thing,” Acosta said.
In his blistering ruling, however, Judge Mirra said the Acosta team broke the Crime Victims Rights Act law by concealing the plea agreement from the victims.
The ruling published numerous emails between prosecutors and Epstein’s lawyers, which included such high-powered attorneys as Alan Dershowtiz and Kenneth Starr, in which they discussed keeping information from the girls.
Mirra writes that it is “undisputed” that the government entered into a (nonprosecution agreement) with Epstein without conferring with(the victims) during the negotiation and signing, Instead,the government sent letters to the victigms requiting their ‘patience’
with the investigation even after the Government entered into the NPA.”
“Particularly problematic was the Government’s decision to conceal the existence of NPA and mislead the victims to believe that federal prosecution was still a possibility,” he wrote.
He noted that the government spent “untold hours” negotiating with Epstein’s attorney, but sharing “scant informations” with the victims.
Lawyer David Boies, who represents two of Epstein’s victims who claim they were trafficked by him in New York and other parts of the country, said the law does not prevent federal prosecutors in other jurisdictions to pursue additional cases against Epstein, the Herald reports.
“They are free, if they conclude it is appropriate to do so, to bring criminal actions against Mr. Epstein and his co-conspirators,’’ said.
Contributing: Christal Hayes and Jorge L. Ortiz