February 21, 2019
By Chris Opfer
Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and other prosecutors violated the law in hatching a plea deal with Miami hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein on teen sex trafficking charges, a federal judge ruled today.
Acosta and other South Florida prosecutors in 2008 improperly “concealed” the agreement from Epstein’s alleged victims, District Judge Kenneth Marra ruled. That kept the some 30 alleged victims from having the opportunity to oppose the agreement before it was signed, Marra said.
The ruling is likely to ramp up public criticism of Acosta, who was the lead federal prosecutor for South Florida when he and state prosecutors reached a deal with Epstein’s lawyers. The agreement allowed Epstein to avoid prosecution for federal sex-trafficking charges related to an alleged sex ring in his Florida home. He was sentenced to 13 months in prison on state prostitution charges.
Marra ruled that the prosecutors violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by entering the agreement without telling the alleged victims and “misleading” the victims to believe that Epstein may still be prosecuted in federal court. The law gives alleged victims broad rights to be involved in and “reasonably heard” during legal proceedings.
The Justice Department recently announced that it launched an investigation into whether prosecutors committed professional misconduct. The DOJ’s inspector general has also asked Congress to pass legislation that would allow him to look into the case.
Epstein was accused of using employees to bring local teen girls to his home for sex and paying victims to recruit new victims. His alleged victims were as young as 13 years old at the time.
“Today’s order signifies long-overdue vindication for all of the victims of Mr. Epstein and his coconspirators,” Paul Cassell, a lawyer for the alleged victims, told Bloomberg Law. “It is unfortunate, though, that the government did not acknowledge its obvious wrongdoing years ago and work with the victims to correct the injustice.”
A November Miami Herald report on the case renewed public attention to the allegations against Epstein. The article also brought new criticism to Acosta, who as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida is said to have helped orchestrate the agreement.
“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,” a Labor Department spokeswoman told Bloomberg Law Feb. 21. “The office’s decisions were approved by departmental leadership and followed departmental procedures.”
Acosta was rumored to be on a short list of potential replacements for Jeff Sessions as the U.S. Attorney General before the Herald story was published. The former Justice Department civil rights chief and National Labor Relations Board member is also widely believed to be interested in a federal judge seat.
Acosta has previously said that he and other prosecutors were subjected to “a year-long assault” from Epstein’s defense lawyers. His supporters also point out that the deal forced Epstein to compensate victims and register as a sex offender.
Epstein’s all-star legal defense team included Harvard University professor Alan Dershowitz, former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, and famed criminal defense attorney Roy Black. Jay Lefkowitz, who previously worked with Acosta at Kirkland and Ellis, was also part of the team.
Prosecutors struggled to build federal charges by tying the allegations to interstate commerce, Dershowitz told Bloomberg Law.
“They didn’t have a strong case,” Dershowitz said. “They had a hard time establishing that any particular woman was transported across state lines to make it a federal case.”
Calls for the Justice Department investigation have focused mainly on how the billionaire Epstein managed to get such a light sentence and why two unidentified people got immunity as part of the agreement.
But Marra’s decision largely targeted prosecutors’ shortcomings in dealing with the alleged victims.
“The Court is not ruling that the decision not to prosecute was improper,” Marra said. “The Court is simply ruling that, under the facts of this case, there was a violation of the victims rights under the CVRA.”
Dershowitz pointed out that Epstein was not directly involved in the case against the prosecutors. He said the ruling will have no impact on the disgraced hedge fund manager.
“The one thing that is clear is that they can’t put him back in jail,” Dershowitz said. “There is no constitutional way he can be retried on the same charges.”
But Cassell said the CVRA gives the judge the power to scrap the plea deal or reopen it. He said lawyers will consult with victims about what they want to do next.
Meanwhile, consumer watchdog group Allied Progress is continuing a public campaign to ramp up pressure on Acosta to leave his DOL post.
“This ruling confirms what we’ve long suspected: Secretary Acosta broke the law when he concocted a secret wrist-slap plea deal for a politically-connected billionaire with little or no input from the dozens of child victims in this case,” Allied Progress adviser Kyle Herrig said in a statement issued after the decision.