They are young women now living in the empowering #MeToo movement of the times. But when wealthy Palm Beach hedge-fund manager Jeffrey Epstein sexually abused them, they were only 14 to 17.
Remember that age?
The naïveté behind the façade of grown-up girl. The peer pressure and the boy pressure you don’t know you’re under until you’re an adult looking back. And, if you’re poor and had a troubled childhood, add to the mix the need to make money too early in life.
Serial predator Epstein knew these girls’ vulnerabilities and how to lure them: Money. Mansions. Jet-setting abroad to parties. One girl brought in another girl to work “for the old man,” as one girl put it, in a sex pyramid scheme.
Once the girls were deep into the lifestyle of $400 a pop “massages” in lavish surroundings, they were trafficked for sex to Epstein’s equally rich, prominent, and powerful friends, and often times flown abroad to his luxury properties in a private jet dubbed the “Lolita Express.”
“It started with one and it trickled into two and so on. And before you know it, I’m being lent out to politicians and academics and royalty,’’ Virginia Roberts, then 16, told Miami Herald investigative reporter Julie K. Brown, who has identified dozens of these girls and dissected every aspect of the concealed case against Epstein.
Brown’s one-year investigation, “Perversion of Justice,” is shining a much-needed light on the sweetheart plea deal given to the man who enslaved these girls by none other than President Trump’s Secretary of Labor, Alexander Acosta.
Any other man accused of heinous sex crimes might have faced real justice. But Epstein, a money manager for the rich, had quite a roster of powerful and influential friends and customers in his little black book. Among them: Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew, a slate of actors, actresses and hypocrites like Kenneth Starr.
Oh yes, Epstein could hang with both Clinton and the independent counsel who investigated him, Starr. How handsomely would that combination possibly pay off?
This offers the best clue: Starr, a former partner at the Kirkland & Ellis law firm, also knew Acosta, who had worked there. He was one of the high-powered attorneys Epstein hired, which also included Jay Lefkowitz, a former Acosta colleague; Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, Jack Goldberger, Roy Black, former U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis and Gerald Lefcourt.
According to the Herald investigation, Acosta and his assistant prosecutors caved under the pressure. The players in this revolting drama have a penchant for underestimating sexual assault, dismissing women’s claims, and some are facing their own woes. In 2016, Starr had to resign from his post as chancellor of Baylor University during an investigation into his handling of sexual assaults at the college.
These girls never had a chance at any real justice then. Let’s see what they get from the justice system now that they’re suing to overturn Eptein’s plea agreement on the grounds that it violated the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act.
When the allegations of sex abuse came to light in 2005, the Palm Beach police did its job, taking the investigation seriously and culling enough evidence that should have put Epstein behind bars for life. The FBI, too, joined the probe after police learned that what was essentially a human trafficking ring extended beyond Florida.
But while Epstein’s wounded victims struggle with the guilt and shame of what happened to them, he’s is a free man, thanks to the deal carved out in secret by Acosta that allowed Epstein to serve a mere 13 months in prison, sealed documents so that what happened wouldn’t be public record, and shut down the FBI investigation.
Acosta — the dean of Florida International University’s law school until Trump picked him to be part of his Cabinet — has a lot of questions to answer, but has refused to comment.
He avoided scrutiny during his confirmation hearing by Republicans who pushed him through despite knowing about the controversial Epstein deal. He was second choice to Trump’s first appointee, food executive Andy Pudzer, booted for domestic-abuse allegations and for hiring an undocumented immigrant as a housekeeper.
Acosta, a Cuban-American with an accomplished career appointed by George W. Bush to the post of U.S. attorney in Miami, made for an expedient addition to Trump’s cabinet, as the president was under pressure to add a Hispanic from his support base in South Florida.
It’s perfectly in character for Trump, who also stands accused by a dozen women of sexual harassment and assault, to overlook that Acosta let a serial sexual predator of teen girls get away with a slap on the wrist and concealment of the case.
But Congress should have known better than to confirm Acosta to a job that entails pursuing human trafficking cases. The sweetheart deal — an utter disregard for the severity of the abuse these girls suffered — should have disqualified Acosta from serving in the administration.
The former prosecutor made a mockery of the sex-offender laws in Florida, some of the strictest in the nation, and of the federal government.
He should be forced to resign from his Cabinet post.
Maybe he can make a living representing perverts.
Follow Fabiola Santiago on Twitter, @fabiolasantiago