By now, you have probably formed some views on the Jeffrey Epstein case. You are, like me, repulsed by Epstein’s conduct. You probably also believe, as I do now that more facts have emerged, that Epstein deserved harsher punishment than he ended up getting. No one will argue seriously against these views.
But based on the Miami Herald’s “Perversion of Justice” series and the ensuing news coverage, you may also believe that well-connected lawyers corrupted now-Secretary of Labor and then-U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta and his team into giving Epstein a sweetheart deal. They did not. I would know. I was there.
In the late 2000s, I worked as Alex’s second-in-command at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida. The Epstein case came to our attention in 2006. The local authority with primary jurisdiction to hold Epstein accountable for his crimes, the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office, was going to allow him to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and merely pay a fine. The local police rightly were outraged and brought the facts to us.
After reviewing the case, we were appalled. Stunningly, the local prosecutors’ resolution had not even acknowledged that Epstein engaged in abhorrent sex acts with scores of children. Despite our shock, we approached this case as federal prosecutors should approach every case: with a steadfast commitment to truth and a deep and abiding respect for the rights that our constitution and our laws afford to both victims and the accused. Our priorities were to make sure Epstein could not hurt anyone else and to compensate Epstein’s victims without retraumatizing them.
Our team worked diligently to build a federal case against Epstein. Throughout the investigation, we took care to be respectful of the pain Epstein’s victims had endured. As we continued, however, it became clear that most of Epstein’s victims were terrified to cooperate against him. Some hired lawyers to avoid appearing before a grand jury. One of the key witnesses moved to Australia and refused to return calls from us. We also researched and discussed significant legal impediments to prosecuting what was, at heart, a local sex abuse case.
Given the obstacles we faced in fashioning a robust federal prosecution, we decided to negotiate a resolution. The only way a resolution could ever be palatable, though, was if we met our two objectives: to protect others from Epstein and to compensate Epstein’s victims without subjecting them to additional trauma.
To those ends, we demanded that Epstein: (1) plead guilty to a felony in state court that reflected his true conduct; (2) agree to incarceration for up to 18 months; (3) register as a sex offender; and (4) pay each known victim between $150,000 and $250,000 through a streamlined mechanism designed to avoid revictimization. We genuinely felt that these conditions met our two objectives. We told Epstein that unless he and the local authorities accepted our demands, we would indict and try him on federal charges. They agreed, and we did not pursue a federal case.