[This post first appeared at Dan Rather’s News & Guts on July 15, 2019]
Alex Acosta is no longer Secretary of Labor, but Jeffrey Epstein’s cloud will never leave him.
From 1999 to 2007, Epstein lured dozens of girls — some as young as 14 — to his Palm Beach residence where he and friends sexually abused them. After a Palm Beach County grand jury indicted him on charges relating to one of his minor victims, Epstein signed a non-prosecution agreement (NPA) with the US attorney’s office for the southern district of Florida. The agreement immunized him from federal charges relating to all of Epstein’s other victims. At the time, Acosta was in charge of that office.
By the time the NPA was finalized, Acosta already knew that the Epstein case involved dozens more young girls. He was nevertheless personally involved in negotiations with Epstein’s attorneys that resolved all charges with these key points:
- In return for pleading guilty to one state count of solicitation of prostitution and one count of soliciting minors to engage in prostitution, Epstein got a light sentence and complete immunity from federal prosecution. He also had to register as a sex offender.
- Any “potential co-conspirators” also got immunity.
- The agreement would remain confidential.
Only the dogged reporting of The Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown, kept Epstein’s deal from becoming just another untold story about America’s special system of criminal justice for the rich. Instead, Epstein faces a new round of sex trafficking charges brought by the US attorney for Manhattan.
The legal trigger for new scrutiny of the 2007 NPA is the Crime Victims’ Rights Act (2004), which became law when Acosta was assistant attorney general in charge of the civil rights division for President George W. Bush. The law requires that a prosecutor who decides not to prosecute a sex offender must notify all known victims. The purpose of the law is to protect victims’ rights and ensure their involvement in the criminal justice process. In Epstein’s case, that didn’t happen in time to stop the deal.
At a July 10, 2019 press conference, Acosta defended the NPA. “Facts are being overlooked,” he complained. So let’s look at them.
The Crime Scandal
1999-2007: Epstein sexually abuses more than 30 minor girls at his Palm Beach mansion and other residences, according to a federal court’s later findings.
2005-2006: After a complaint from the parents of a 14-year-old girl that Epstein had sexually abused her, Palm Beach County police identify approximately 20 minor girl victims and ask the FBI to investigate. As a potential federal case, it comes under the jurisdiction of US attorney for the southern district of Florida, Alex Acosta.
2006: A Florida state grand jury indicts Epstein on a state charge of soliciting prostitution. It involves only one girl and does not disclose that she is a minor. Epstein hires a legal defense team that eventually includes Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, as well as Kirkland & Ellis partners Ken Starr and Jay Lefkowitz.
May 2007: Prosecutors in Acosta’s office draft a 53-page indictment identifying 12 of Epstein’s victims.
The Plea Agreement Scandal
Sept. 24, 2007: After prosecutors in Acosta’s office exchange multiple drafts with Epstein’s attorneys, Epstein signs the NPA. But he doesn’t appear before the state court to enter a plea pursuant to that agreement until June 30, 2008. In the interim, Acosta and prosecutors in his office negotiate with Epstein’s attorneys — including Starr and Lefkowitz — over the substance and timing of a victim notification letter. Epstein’s attorneys also seek review of the case at a “higher level” within the Justice Department to determine whether federal prosecution is appropriate at all.
Oct. 12, 2007: Lefkowitz and Acosta meet for breakfast. Lefkowitz follows up with a letter to Acosta stating, “I also want to thank you for the commitment you made to me during our October 12 meeting in which you … assured me that your Office would not … contact any of the identified individuals, potential witnesses, or potential civil claimants and their respective counsel in this matter.”
Nov. 29, 2007: After a prosecutor in Acosta’s office informs Lefkowitz that the office has a statutory obligation to notify Epstein’s victims about the plea deal, Lefkowitz sends Acosta a letter objecting to a proposed victim notification letter. He states that no letter should be sent to the victims before Epstein enters his plea or has been sentenced. Lefkowitz also says that the victims should not be invited to the state sentencing or encouraged to contact law enforcement officials.
Jan. 10, 2008: The FBI sends letters to Epstein’s victims stating, “This case is currently under investigation. This can be a lengthy process and we request your continued patience while we conduct a thorough investigation.” The letters don’t mention that the NPA will bar Acosta’s office from prosecuting Epstein federally.
June 30, 2008: Federal prosecutors had identified 31 individuals “whom it was prepared to name in an indictment” as Epstein’s victims and the deputy attorney general had determined that federal prosecution of Epstein was appropriate. Pursuant to the NPA, he pleads guilty to two state charges: one count of solicitation of prostitution and one count of solicitation of prostitution with a minor under the age of 18.
Epstein then serves a 13-month sentence in a private wing of a Palm Beach jail and is allowed to leave 12 hours a day, six days a week, to work out of a nearby office.
Why did Acosta let this happen?
That’s the subject of Part II.