More than two dozen lawmakers are demanding an investigation into possible misconduct by U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, who, as a former federal prosecutor in Miami, helped broker a secret plea deal for a multimillionaire accused of running an underage sex trafficking network.
The lawmakers, mostly Democrats, have sent several letters to Michael E. Horowitz, inspector general for the Department of Justice, calling for a probe into Acosta’s role in the 2008 plea deal for Jeffrey Epstein.
Epstein, 65, a Palm Beach hedge fund manager, faced a possible life sentence for molesting dozens of girls, but was instead granted federal immunity as part of a non-prosecution agreement approved by Acosta when he was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
Thus far, 34 senators and members of the House have called for a probe of the Epstein case, including two Republicans, Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Ben Sasse, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee for oversight.
The requests come one week after the Miami Herald published an investigation, Perversion of Justice, that revealed how federal prosecutors worked with Epstein’s high-profile lawyers to craft a deal that would keep him out of prison. Instead he would serve a brief jail stint.
Acosta agreed, despite a federal law to the contrary, that the deal would be kept from Epstein’s underage victims until after Epstein was sentenced, thereby making it impossible for them to appear in court and possibly derail the agreement.
The Herald identified nearly 80 possible victims, most of them 13 to 16 years old. Several of them, now in their late 20s and early 30s, told the Herald that they felt betrayed by Acosta and other prosecutors who failed to treat them as victims and labeled them as prostitutes — even though they were under the age of consent.
Acosta, 49, was confirmed as President Trump’s labor secretary in April 2017. During his hearings, senators Tim Kaine and Patty Murray questioned Acosta about Epstein’s deal but Acosta never explained why he agreed to have it sealed.
He was approved by the Senate, 60-38, with eight Democrats and one independent voting in favor of his appointment.
“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 during his hearings.
As labor secretary, Acosta oversees a massive federal agency that provides oversight of the country’s labor laws, including human trafficking.
He had been on a list of possible successors to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but was said to have been eliminated from consideration after the Herald published its series online last week.
On Thursday, a group of senators led by Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate panel that oversees the Department of Labor, wrote a letter to Horowitz, questioning whether Epstein used his connections to not only secure a lenient sentence, but to obtain immunity for other people who were involved or knew about his sexual exploitation of minors.
“Our justice system is predicated on the fundamental value that no individual is above the law, and to that end, it is essential that plea agreements involving well-connected individuals not only follow the law and standard practice, but also stand up to scrutiny,’‘ said the letter, signed by 15 other members of the Senate.
Rubio on Thursday also called upon the Justice Department to explain how such a deal could have happened.
“There should be a little bit more clarity as to why that case was resolved the way it was resolved,” Rubio said. “Because for most people that read it, it doesn’t make sense.”
From 2001 to 2006, Epstein assembled a large cult-like network of underage girls — most of them from disadvantaged backgrounds — to give him massages. He then coerced them into sex acts and paid them to recruit other girls to bring to his Palm Beach mansion, three to four times a day, according to police.
The Herald’s examination of thousands of court records, emails and FBI records also showed that after the deal was struck, it effectively shut down an ongoing FBI probe into whether Epstein was trafficking girls and young women from around the country and from overseas for sex parties attended by other powerful people at his mansions in New York, New Mexico and on his private island in the Caribbean.
Federal prosecutors had prepared a 53-page indictment against Epstein for federal sex crimes involving minors, which would have sent him to prison for decades. The indictment, however, was shelved, and Epstein was allowed to plead guilty to two minor prostitution charges in state court.
He spent just 13 months in the Palm Beach County jail, where he was given permission to leave most of the day under a liberal work release program that wasn’t granted to other convicted sex offenders. He was released in 2009.
Sasse, in his letter, said he was disturbed that federal prosecutors would have given Epstein such a break.
“The fact that this monster received such a pathetically soft sentence is a travesty that should outrage us all,’‘ Sasse wrote in a letter to DOJ’s inspector general.
Experts say its possible that several investigations could be launched, not just by the Department of Justice.
The Department of Labor’s inspector general could also do a review, said Philip Lacovara, who served as counsel to the special prosecutor who investigated President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal.
Neither agency is required to say if and when it is conducting a review, he said, so it’s possible investigations could already be underway. But the results may or may not be made public.
“They may do 10 confidential investigations, but you may only know about one,” Lacovara said.
Francey Hakes, a former federal prosecutor, said that such an investigation could result in policy changes and new regulations on how federal prosecutors handle victim notification and non-prosecution agreements.
“I just don’t know of any retrospective way to fix things,” Hakes said. “I hope they will get to the bottom of whatever happened.”