In 2007, the U.S. attorney’s office seemed on track to charge Palm Beach billionaire Jeffrey Epstein in a sweeping indictment, accusing him of running a ring to pay underage girls for his sexual pleasure.
But the office’s leader, Alex Acosta, retreated from what appeared to be a strong federal prosecution, bolstered with 40 female victims, and opted to let the state attorney charge Epstein in a streamlined prostitution case involving minors.
The bruising negotiations between Acosta’s office and Epstein’s defense team ended with the U.S. attorney’s decision not to present the 53-page indictment to a federal grand jury.
Instead, Acosta signed off on a non-prosecution agreement that spared Epstein from five federal charges accusing him of an interstate commerce conspiracy to recruit girls from 13 to 17 years old for sex at his Palm Beach mansion. If he had been indicted and convicted by the feds, Epstein could have been sent to prison for the rest of his life.
Acosta’s dominant role in deciding Epstein’s fate is expected to be scrutinized at his upcoming Senate confirmation hearing as President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of labor.
Acosta’s office’s negotiations to reach the deal with Epstein — which required the Wall Street financier to plead guilty to state charges, serve a short jail sentence and pay damages to victims — grew so frustrating that Acosta’s lead prosecutor threatened at one point to move ahead with the planned federal indictment.
“I will not miss my indictment date when this has dragged on for several weeks already and then, if things fall apart, be left in a less advantageous position than before the negotiations,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Ann Marie Villafaña emailed one of Epstein’s defense lawyers on Sept. 19, 2007.
“I have had an 82-page [prosecution] memo and 53-page indictment sitting on the shelf since May to engage in these negotiations,” she continued. “There has to be an ending date, and that date is Monday.”
Five days after her email, Epstein and his lawyers signed the non-prosecution agreement, after trying for months to prevent him from being charged at all and having to register as a sex offender in Florida.
Although a senior Justice Department official found that Acosta had the discretion to mount a federal child sex-abuse prosecution against Epstein, the U.S. attorney ultimately decided to defer to local authorities to make the case against him.
Epstein, then 55, pleaded guilty on June 30, 2008, to soliciting minors for prostitution and committing prostitution. He served 13 months in jail.
After he left the U.S. attorney’s office in 2009 to become the dean at Florida International University’s law school, Acosta defended his judgments in the prominent criminal case. He highlighted the risk of a federal trial versus the certainty of a state conviction.
“The botttom line is this: Mr. Jeffrey Epstein, a billionaire, served time in jail and is now a registered sex offender,” Acosta wrote in a 2011 letter intended for the public and news media. “He has been required to pay his victims restitution, though restitution clearly cannot compensate for the crime.
“And we know much more today about his crimes because the victims have come forward to speak out,” he wrote. “Some may disagree with the prosecutorial judgments made in this case, but those individuals are not the ones who at the time reviewed the evidence available for trial and assessed the likelihood of success.”