Federal prosecutors, under former Miami U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta, broke the law when they concealed a plea agreement from more than 30 underage victims who had been sexually abused by wealthy New York hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
While the decision marks a victory for crime victims, the federal judge, Kenneth A. Marra, stopped short of overturning Epstein’s plea deal, or issuing an order resolving the case. He instead gave federal prosecutors 15 days to confer with Epstein’s victims and their attorneys to come up with a settlement. The victims did not seek money or damages as part of the suit.
It’s not clear whether the victims, now in their late 20s and early 30s, can, as part of the settlement, demand that the government prosecute Epstein. But others are calling on the Justice Department to take a new look at the case in the wake of the judge’s ruling.
“As a legal matter, the non-prosecution agreement entered into by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Florida does not bind other U.S. Attorneys in other districts. They are free, if they conclude it is appropriate to do so, to bring criminal actions against Mr. Epstein and his co-conspirators,’’ said lawyer David Boies, representing two of Epstein’s victims who claim they were trafficked by Epstein in New York and other areas of the country.
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Earlier this month, the Department of Justice announced it was opening a probe of the case in response to calls from three dozen members of Congress. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Oversight Subcommittee, on Thursday asked the DOJ to re-open Epstein’s plea deal.
“The fact that it’s taken this long to get this far is heartbreaking and infuriating,’’ said Sasse. “The Department of Justice should use this opportunity to reopen its non-prosecution agreement so that Epstein and anyone else who abused these children are held accountable.”
Epstein’s lawyer, Martin Weinberg, did not return a call from the Miami Herald.
Brad Edwards, who represents Courtney Wild — Jane Doe No. 1 in the case — said he was elated at the judge’s ruling, but admitted he is troubled that it took 11 years to litigate. He blamed federal prosecutors for needlessly dragging it out when they could have remedied their error after it was brought to their attention in 2008.
“The government aligned themselves with Epstein, working against his victims, for 11 years,’’ Edwards said. “Yes, this is a huge victory, but to make his victims suffer for 11 years, this should not have happened. Instead of admitting what they did, and doing the right thing, they spent 11 years fighting these girls.’’
Marra, in a 33-page opinion, said prosecutors not only violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by not informing the victims, they also misled the girls into believing that the FBI’s sex trafficking case against Epstein was still ongoing — when in fact, prosecutors had secretly closed it after sealing the plea bargain from the public record.
The decision follows a three-part series published by the Miami Herald in November, “Perversion of Justice,’’ which detailed how federal prosecutors collaborated with Epstein’s lawyers to arrange the deal, then hid it from his victims and the public so that no one would know the full scope of Epstein’s crimes and who else was involved.
The 66-year-old mogul lured scores of teenage girls from troubled homes — some as young as 13 — as part of a cult-like scheme to sexually abuse them by offering them money to give him massages and promising some of them he would send them to college or help them find careers. Future president Donald Trump, former president Bill Clinton, lawyer Alan Dershowitz, Prince Andrew and other world leaders, scientists and academics were friends with Epstein, who also owns a vast home in Manhattan, a private jet, and an island in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he now lives.
Marra, noting that he reviewed affidavits, depositions and interrogatories — presumably some of them sealed — showed “Epstein worked in concert with others to obtain minors not only for his own sexual gratification, but also for the sexual gratification of others, ’’ the judge said.
Instead of prosecuting Epstein under federal sex trafficking laws, Acosta allowed Epstein to quietly plead guilty in state court to two prostitution charges and he served just 13 months in the Palm Beach County jail. His accomplices, some of whom have never been identified, were not charged.
Epstein’s victims were not told the case was closed until it was too late for them to appear at his sentencing and possibly upend the deal. Two of them filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in 2008, claiming that prosecutors violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, which grants victims of federal crimes a series of rights, including the ability to confer with prosecutors about a possible plea deal.
Marra said that while prosecutors had the right to resolve the case in any way they saw fit, they violated the law by hiding the agreement from Epstein’s victims.
“Particularly problematic was the Government’s decision to conceal the existence of the [agreement] and mislead the victims to believe that federal prosecution was still a possibility,’’ Marra wrote. “When the Government gives information to victims, it cannot be misleading. While the Government spent untold hours negotiating the terms and implications of the [agreement] with Epstein’s attorneys, scant information was shared with victims.’’
The U.S. attorney’s office in Miami declined to comment.
Acosta, who was nominated as labor secretary in 2017, issued a written statement through a spokesman:
“For more than a decade, the actions of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida in this case have been defended by the Department of Justice in litigation across three administrations and several attorneys general. The office’s decisions were approved by departmental leadership and followed departmental procedures. This matter remains in litigation and, thus, for any further comment we refer you to the Department of Justice.”
Michelle Licata, who was molested by Epstein when she was 14, said the judge’s decision was “a step for justice.’’ But she still questions why federal authorities have failed to open a new case against Epstein, given that more victims and evidence has come to light in recent years.
“They should see if they can prosecute him for something. I mean, really prosecute him — instead of giving him 13 months where he was allowed to come and go as he pleased. I just want to see him face some consequences for what he did.’’
Francey Hakes, a former federal prosecutor, said the Crime Victims’ Rights Act doesn’t spell out any punishment for violating its terms, so it would set a precedent to re-open Epstein’s agreement.
“Epstein will surely argue he complied with the agreement, relied upon it, and plead guilty under it so it can’t be overturned in fairness to him,’’ she said. “I will be very interested to see what the parties say the remedy for the violation should be. Ultimately, it is simply shocking the Government went to the lengths they did to keep the victims in the dark in order to make a serious predator’s high priced defense team happy. Justice should not, and does not, look like this.’’
There has been no statute of limitations for sex trafficking since 2002, but Edwards and other lawyers involved in the case said they tried without success to get federal authorities to investigate whether Epstein’s crimes went beyond Palm Beach.
In an op-ed published Sunday in the Herald, Jeffrey H. Sloman, the former first assistant U.S. Attorney under Acosta during the Epstein case, defended their decision to give Epstein federal immunity. He claimed that many of the victims were too frightened to testify against Epstein.
He also noted that there were “significant legal impediments to prosecuting what was, at heart, a local sex case.’’
Marra suggested otherwise in his decision, saying: “Epstein and his co-conspirators knowingly traveled in interstate and international commerce to sexually abuse Jane Doe 1 and Doe 2 and others, [and] they committed violations of not only Florida law, but also federal law.‘’
The bulk of his opinion quoted emails exchanged during the tense negotiations between federal prosecutors and Epstein’s legal team, which included Roy Black, Jack Goldberger, Alan Dershowitz, Jay Lefkowitz and former Whitewater and Clinton prosecutor Kenneth Starr.
Those emails suggested ways in which both parties tried to keep Epstein’s victims in the dark, he said.
“The CVRA [Crime Victims’ Rights Act] was designed to protect victims’ rights and ensure their involvement in the criminal justice process...’’ Marra wrote.
“...Under the facts of this case, once the Government failed to advise the victims about its intention to enter into the [non-prosecution agreement], a violation of the CVRA occurred.’’
Victims advocates applauded the judge’s decision.
“This is a tremendous victory for crime victims and for the rule of law. The Court made clear that the statute was enacted to make crime victims full participants in the criminal justice system,’’ said Jeff R. Dion, executive director of the Zero Abuse Project. “And when the Government gives information to victims, it cannot be misleading. The Government’s conduct was a clear violation of the CVRA, and the court must now consider a remedy.’’