The Department of Justice has opened an investigation into Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta’s role in negotiating a controversial plea deal with a wealthy New York investor accused of molesting more than 100 underage girls in Palm Beach.
The probe is in response to a request by Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who was critical of the case following a series of stories in the Miami Herald. The Herald articles detailed how Acosta, then the U.S. attorney for Southern Florida, and other DOJ attorneys worked hand-in-hand with defense lawyers to cut a lenient plea deal with multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein in 2008.
The Herald’s three-part series, Perversion of Justice, was cited by Assistant Attorney General Stephen E. Boyd in his letter to Sasse. DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility will head the investigation, he said.
“OPR has now opened an investigation into allegations that department attorneys may have committed professional misconduct in the manner in which the Epstein criminal matter was resolved,’’ wrote Boyd in the letter dated Wednesday.
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Acosta, 50, had been considered a rising star in the Republican Party and was once mentioned as a possible candidate to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He did not respond to a request for comment emailed to his office on Wednesday.
Sasse and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Sunrise Democrat, have pushed for a DOJ investigation into whether there was any undue influence that tainted the case.
“Jeffrey Epstein is a child rapist and there’s not a single mom or dad in America who shouldn’t be horrified by the fact that he received a pathetically soft sentence,’’ Sasse said on Wednesday. “The victims of Epstein’s child sex trafficking ring deserve this investigation — and so do the American people and the members of law enforcement who work to put these kinds of monsters behind bars.’’
Former Palm Beach Police Chief Michael Reiter — who pressured Acosta and former Palm Beach state prosecutor Barry Krischer to more aggressively prosecute Epstein — said he would like to see Epstein’s victims finally receive some form of justice.
“I hope that the Department of Justice investigation answers the questions of why this case was handled by the U.S. attorney’s office in the way that it was, and may it somehow result in justice and an apology by the government for the victims and their families,’’ Reiter said.
The case has raised fundamental questions about whether well-connected, wealthy people wield influence over prosecutors and others in the justice system. Epstein had a wide circle of powerful friends, including Bill Clinton, President Donald Trump, Prince Andrew, lawyer Alan Dershowitz and a former prime minister of Israel, Ehud Barak.
“I am in tears that someone is finally listening to our stories. Hopefully, God willing, something happens and they dig into this and do something,’’ said Jena-Lisa Jones who was molested by Epstein when she was 14.
Former federal prosecutor Mimi Rocah said DOJ’s announcement is a good first step — but may not be enough.
The Office of Professional Responsibility, which acts much like a police department’s internal affairs division, is notoriously secretive with its probes, and they rarely become public, she said. But with Sasse and other lawmakers calling for the investigation, DOJ may be under pressure to be more transparent with its findings.
“It is a good sign that OPR’s letter to Senator Sasse indicates that it will share its results at the conclusion of the investigation, but those results will have to be viewed in the context of OPR’s limited powers,’’ she said, adding that OPR doesn’t have the power to subpoena witnesses.
Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general, has urged Congress to allow him to conduct a probe, noting that OPR’s investigations often shield prosecutors accused of wrongdoing.
But Horowitz needs Congress to change the law to give him the power to proceed with what he called a more “independent’’ review of the case.
The Office of Professional Responsibility was asked to investigate the case in the past, but it’s not clear whether it ever acted on those requests, court records reviewed by the Herald show.
Wasserman Schultz, in a statement, questioned whether OPR has the independence to do a credible investigation.
“This atrocious case deserves both a publicly disclosed investigation and complete independence that will ensure accountability. It’s simply not enough,” she said.
Epstein, 66, could have faced a possible life sentence for sex trafficking, but instead was secretly granted federal immunity, along with others who were part of the conspiracy, some of whom were named, others not.
Epstein was suspected by the FBI of running an international sex trafficking operation involving minors, and federal prosecutors had drafted a 53-page indictment that was shelved after Acosta signed off on a non-prosecution agreement in September 2007.
For months after the deal was executed, federal prosecutors kept Epstein’s victims in the dark, and the FBI led some of them to believe the investigation was ongoing. Most of the girls, ages 13 to 16 at the time, found out about the plea bargain only after learning about it on television when Epstein was sentenced in June 2008.
Acosta agreed to seal the agreement and keep it from Epstein’s victims so that the girls couldn’t try to derail it before he was sentenced, the Herald found.
Epstein’s agreement called for him to serve 18 months in the Palm Beach County jail and to register as a sex offender. But even in jail, Epstein received liberal work release privileges that required him to spend little time in a cell. Six days a week, he was picked up at the jail by his private driver and driven to an office in downtown West Palm Beach, where he spent up to 12 hours a day greeting friends, lawyers and several young women who were named by federal prosecutors as participants in his sex trafficking scheme.
Ultimately, he served 13 months on two prostitution charges and was released in 2009. Two of his victims, now in their 30s, are suing the federal government, claiming that prosecutors violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, which grants crime victims certain rights, including to confer with prosecutors and be informed about any plea deal. The lawsuit, filed in the Southern District of Florida, seeks to throw out the agreement. It’s not clear whether voiding the deal could result in Epstein facing renewed charges.
Epstein quietly settled individual civil lawsuits with more than 40 victims, but the girls were subjected to brutal questioning by Epstein’s powerful cadre of lawyers. He also hired private investigators to dig into every aspect of their lives, the Miami Herald found.
In one case, they deposed a girl’s parents and grilled them over an abortion the girl had years before. Prior to testifying, the girl’s parents, who are Catholic, did not know their daughter had had an abortion.
In interviews with the Herald, several of Epstein’s victims — now in their late 20s and early 30s — said they felt betrayed by both state and federal prosecutors who treated them like prostitutes, even though they were well under the age of consent, which is 18 in Florida.
“I hope that legislators find a way to prohibit prosecutors from labeling children as prostitutes who have no legal ability to consent,’’ Reiter said.