The questionable actions of former Miami U.S. attorney General Alexander Acosta in gifting a sweetheart federal plea deal to a Palm Beach multimillionaire and serial sexual predator have come under fire — and should also come under federal investigation, as we recommended in a past editorial.
A group of bipartisan congressional members — and the Miami Herald Editorial Board — have already called for the Department of Justice Inspector General to probe the secret deal struck 10 years ago by Acosta, now a Cabinet member and U.S. Labor Secretary.
But a controversial procedural obstacle stands in the path of that investigation and others crafted in secrecy by federal attorneys. It must be removed.
Listen carefully, Senators — especially Florida Republicans Marco Rubio and Rick Scott. If you want to restore the public’s trust in a federal justice system that can’t be bought by a rich man with powerful friends and fancy attorneys, this is what needs to happen, and soon.
When Congress returns to work in January, we’re asking the Senate to quickly pass the Inspector General Access Act of 2017, House Bill 3154. This would give DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz a clear path to investigate Acosta now — if he wishes to do so. He should. In the future, it would also bring other similar backroom deals under the IG’s oversight.
A year-long Miami Herald investigation by reporter Julie K. Brown has shockingly detailed how Palm Beach hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein created “a large, cult-like network of underage girls — with the help of young female recruiters — to coerce into performing sex acts behind the walls of his opulent waterfront mansion as often as three times a day.” He disguised sexual abuse with the trappings of wealth. The usually-troubled high school girls were lured with the promised of $200 to give Epstein “massages.” Brown is the only reporter to extensively interview many of Epstein’s victims — as many as three dozen victims were all kept in the dark about the secret deal he finagled from Miami’s top prosecutor.
Acosta gave his seal of approval to the plea deal. He did not seek a harsh sentence for Epstein. Instead, he repeatedly caved to his high-powered lawyers’ demands and even worked with the legal team to limit the scope and publicity of the FBI investigation. In 2007, Epstein plead guilty to counts of prostitution and served 13-months in a county jail, where he could come and go. What a farce.
During Acosta’s confirmation hearing for Labor Secretary in March 2017, the Epstein plea deal surfaced and Acosta waved it away with this explanation: “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 generally [as a sexual predator] and guarantees other outcomes, is a good thing.”
But California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, didn’t buy it — and we shouldn’t have either. She voted against Acosta’s nomination saying his handling of the Epstein case suggested he prioritizes the interests of the powerful over everyday people. Feinstein was right, and we should have paid more attention to her concern. Now we get a Mulligan.
Why is this pending bill so critical? Currently, the Office of the Inspector General is statutorily required to refer all allegations of attorney misconduct to the Office of Professional Responsibility — a flaw that allows federal attorneys to function without any independent oversight from the IG when they are accused of wrongdoing.
Horowitz and his predecessors have for years argued to Congress that this carve-out from the office’s jurisdiction is “unwarranted and unprincipled,” and has fought to have the provision lifted. As it stands, the failings of federal attorneys can be reported to the DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), but that office answers to the Attorney General and it’s not independent. Passage of the Access Act would give Horowitz the authority to investigate all DOJ attorneys accused of alleged wrongdoing while they are litigating, investigating or providing legal advice.
The inspector generals have good reason to be concerned about the lack of oversight. Back in 2014, an internal affairs office by the OPR found that over the last decade, hundreds of federal prosecutors and other DOJ employees violated rules, laws, or ethical standards governing their work. The violations, 650 total, include instances in which attorneys who have a duty to uphold justice misled courts, withheld evidence that could have helped defendants, abused prosecutorial and investigative power and violated constitutional rights. Yet, was this information released to the public? Nope. It was only released through a Freedom of Information Act requested by the Project On Government Oversight. That’s not acceptable.
The current IG bill , known as the Access Act, would give Horowitz the authority to investigate someone like Acosta for his dealing with Epstein. The bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), unanimously passed the House last month and is sitting in the Senate’s Committee on the Judiciary. Its passage in the Senate is key to whether or not Acosta and others are investigated by a truly independent watchdog like the inspector general.
“The passage of the Inspector General Access Act is a step forward in true justice and accountability not only within the Department of Justice, but also for the American people,” Richmond said. “Working for the Department of Justice is an honor and valuable service. Its lawyers and other employees should be held to a standard of excellence that exemplifies values of fairness, honesty, and efficiency in upholding the federal legal process.”
Now, among the Democratic congressional members pushing for the Access Act bill to come to the Senate floor is Broward Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fl), who sent a letter to the IG last month, signed by 14 other congressional leaders and attorneys, calling for the IG to investigate Acosta. Her office has since been monitoring the Access Act’s progress.
“Majority Leader Mitch McConnell must immediately allow the Senate to take up and pass the Inspector General Access Act,” Wasserman Schultz told the Miami Herald in an e-mail. “This legislation would empower the Justice Department’s internal watchdog to review any non-prosecution agreement giving serial sexual predators sweetheart deals, shielding their co-conspirators, and denying victims their day in court. Obscene travesties of justice such as that perpetrated by Mr. Acosta must be exposed and eradicated.” The congresswoman is right.
The time has come for Congress to throw the spotlight on the kind of cozy and secret federal deals that Acosta was able to strike up for the rich and connected like Epstein. The Miami Herald investigation illustrates precisely why this is such a grave problem. The Senate should pass the IG Access Act bill, and set the course for a truly independent investigation of Acosta and others. That would be the right thing to do.