The U.S. Department of Justice’s inspector general urged Congress on Tuesday to allow him to investigate Alex Acosta — the former U.S. attorney in Miami whose controversial 2008 plea deal with a politically connected serial sex abuser has led to calls for Acosta to resign as secretary of labor.
Acosta’s unusual non-prosecution agreement with hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein may finally provide the turning point in a 30-year quest by the DOJ’s inspector general’s office to oversee and investigate Justice Department attorneys.
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Inspector General Michael Horowitz, responding to a request last month by lawmakers demanding a probe into the Epstein case, said that while “important questions” have been raised about how Epstein’s case was resolved by the DOJ, the inspector general has long lacked the power to investigate his own lawyers.
Unlike other federal agencies, the Justice Department insulates its lawyers from congressional and public scrutiny by directing internal affairs investigations to the Office of Professional Responsibility, which rarely releases its findings.
“Over the past 30 years, my three predecessors as DOJ Inspector General and I have objected to this limitation on the [inspector general’s] jurisdiction because it shields prosecutorial misconduct from review by a statutorily independent Office of Inspector General,’’ Horowitz wrote.
A bipartisan effort to change the law died last year, but a bill, called the Inspector General Access Act, was reintroduced in the House earlier this month, and passed unanimously. It must now be taken up by the Senate, where both Republicans and Democrats have expressed support last year.
“Our nation’s top law enforcers must police [their] own lawyers, especially when a non-prosecution agreement allows a serial sexual predator to receive nothing more than an offensive wrist slap that was hidden from his victims,’’ said Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Sunrise who supports the bill, on Tuesday.
The effort follows a Miami Herald three-part series, “Perversion of Justice,’’ which detailed how federal prosecutors, led by Acosta, worked together with Epstein’s attorneys to come up with a special deal for Epstein, a multimillionaire who ran a sex pyramid scheme from his Palm Beach estate that targeted underage girls. Epstein, 66, faced a possible life sentence for sex trafficking, but instead was secretly granted federal immunity, along with others who were allegedly part of the conspiracy but not named. Epstein’s victims were not told about the arrangement and, after a brief stint in the Palm Beach County Jail on prostitution charges, Epstein was released.
The Herald investigation of the deal identified nearly 80 possible victims, most of them 13 to 16 years old. Four of them, now in their late 20s and early 30s, agreed to be interviewed on the record and on video by the Herald. They said they felt betrayed by federal prosecutors who promised to hold Epstein accountable. The FBI had produced enough evidence for a 53-page indictment, but it was shelved by Acosta, the Herald reported.
Acosta agreed to keep the deal from Epstein’s victims so that they couldn’t try to derail it before he was sentenced.
The case has raised fundamental questions about whether well-connected individuals receive a different kind of justice than others who don’t have the means to hire all-star lawyers who wield influence with prosecutors through their legal and political alliances.
In the Epstein case, the Herald found that Acosta met privately with Jay Lefkowitz, a former colleague at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis. Another lawyer at the firm, Kenneth Starr, was also part of Epstein’s legal team, along with Alan Dershowitz, Roy Black and others.
Another prominent Kirkland alum, President Trump’s attorney general nominee, William Barr, was questioned about the case by Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, during his confirmation hearings earlier this month. Barr said that since the case involved his former law firm, he would likely recuse himself — but he promised Sasse that he would address the Justice Department’s handling of the case in some fashion.
“If I’m confirmed, I’ll make sure your questions are answered on this case,’’ Barr told Sasse.
Horowitz is known as the person who uncovered the anti-Trump texts between two FBI officials who were working on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into possible criminal wrongdoing by President Trump and his campaign. Last year, Horowitz was the subject of a tweet from the president, who noted that he was nominated by President Obama. But Horowitz, a former federal public corruption prosecutor in New York, is considered fiercely independent.
During his confirmation hearing in 2011, Horowitz described his philosophy as a prosecutor: “The message we had was, you make the decisions, you follow the evidence and the law, you do so with impartiality, and the results are the results. Wherever the chips fall, they fall.”