Editorials

Senate’s first order of business: Remove roadblock to independent investigation into egregious Acosta/Epstein plea deal

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The questionable actions of Miami’s former U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta in gifting a sweetheart federal plea deal to a Palm Beach multimillionaire and serial sexual predator have rightly come under fire. They should also come under federal investigation, as we recommended in a recent editorial.

A group of bipartisan congressional members — and the Miami Herald Editorial Board — have already called for the Department of Justice’s inspector general to probe the secret deal that Acosta struck 10 years ago. He now is a Cabinet member, serving as U.S. labor secretary.

But a procedural obstacle stands in the way. It must be removed if the young women who say they were sexually molested by Epstein when they were young teens are to see even a hint of justice. When Congress returns to work in January, senators should, with bipartisan outrage, quickly pass the Inspector General Access Act, House Bill 3154.

This would give DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz a clear path to investigate Acosta now — if he wishes to do so. And he definitely should. A year-long Miami Herald investigation by reporter Julie K. Brown presented the shocking details of how Epstein, a Palm Beach hedge fund manager, 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 masked his sexual abuse with the trappings of wealth. The high school girls, often from troubled circumstances and vulnerable, were lured with the promise 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 all were kept in the dark about the secret deal he finagled from Miami’s top federal prosecutor.

Acosta gave his seal of approval to a deal that allowed Epstein to plead guilty to two counts of prostitution, period. He served 13 months at a relatively cushy county jail, where he was free to come and go. Instead of insisting on more-serious charges and a harsher sentence for Epstein, Acosta repeatedly caved to the demands of the sexual predator’s high-powered lawyers and even worked with the legal team to limit the scope and publicity of the FBI investigation. What a farce.

When the Epstein plea deal came up during Acosta’s confirmation hearing for labor secretary in March 2017, 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, given the scores of victims now unearthed by the Herald series, we shouldn’t have, either. Feinstein voted against Acosta’s nomination saying his handling of the Epstein case suggested he prioritizes the interests of the powerful over everyday people. She was right.

Why is this pending bill so critical? Currently, the Office of the Inspector General is statutorily required to refer allegations of attorney misconduct to the Office of Professional Responsibility — a flaw that allows U.S. attorneys to function without any independent oversight from the IG when they are accused of wrongdoing. For years, Horowitz and his predecessors have argued to Congress that this carve-out from the office’s jurisdiction is “unwarranted and unprincipled,” and has fought to have the provision lifted.

Though the possible failings of U.S. attorneys are reported to the DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), that office answers to the U.S. Attorney General, meaning it’s not truly independent. Passing the Access Act would give Horowitz the authority to investigate all DOJ attorneys accused of wrongdoing while they are litigating, investigating or providing legal advice.

The inspectors general have good reason to be concerned about the lack of oversight. Back in 2014, an internal affairs report by the OPR found that during the preceding decade, hundreds of federal prosecutors and other DOJ employees violated rules, laws or ethical standards governing their work. The violations, 650 total, included instances in which attorneys misled courts, withheld evidence that could have helped defendants, abused their prosecutorial and investigative power and violated constitutional rights. This information never was released to the public until a Freedom of Information Act request by the Project On Government Oversight. That’s not acceptable.

The proposed Access Act would give Horowitz and his successors the direct authority to investigate someone like Acosta for his dealings with Epstein. The bill, sponsored by by U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-Louisiana, unanimously passed the House last month and is sitting in the Senate’s Committee on the Judiciary. Its passage in that chamber is key to whether Acosta is investigated by a truly independent watchdog like the inspector general.

Broward County U.S Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz 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 bill’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 Herald Editorial Board in an email. “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 on point.

The time has come for Congress to throw the spotlight on the kind of federal backroom deals that Acosta was able to strike for a wealthy and connected man like Epstein — and help put an end to the cozy deals. 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. It could be the first, and long overdue step, to securing justice for the sexually abused young women.

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