Editor's note: Jeffrey Epstein was arrested in New York on July 6, 2019, and faced federal charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking. On August 10, 2019, he died in an apparent jailhouse suicide. For more information, see The Daily Beast's reporting here.
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.—Hours after Jeffrey Epstein settled a civil lawsuit that was about to go to trial, a Florida congresswoman stood outside the courthouse and demanded an investigation into another aspect of the disgraced billionaire’s long-running drama: the role Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta played in a sweetheart plea deal.
“We are hoping for transparency,” Rep. Lois Frankel, a Democrat, said at a press conference a day after she and 14 other lawmakers called on the Department of Justice inspector general to open a probe.
“It is just a shocking plea agreement.”
She was referring to the 2008 deal that Epstein, accused of paying dozens of girls for sex and intimate massages, cut with Acosta, who was then the top federal prosecutor in Miami. It allowed the politically connected hedge-fund manager to plead guilty to two minor state charges and avoid any serious prison time.
Although there was some outrage at the time of the deal, new questions emerged after a bombshell investigative report by The Miami Herald detailed how Acosta and other prosecutors buckled under the pressure of Epstein’s defense lawyers, including Sexgate prosecutor Ken Starr and celebrity attorney Alan Dershowitz.
“The public is owed an explanation why a serial sexual predator of young women was let off with extreme light punishment and is still roaming free,” Frankel told The Daily Beast.
In exchange for the non-prosecution agreement—which effectively buried dozens of allegations of child sex abuse and required Epstein to serve just a year in jail with generous work release—he provided federal investigators with “unspecified information,” according to records first cited by The Miami Herald.
Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor who still represents Epstein, did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
“This plea agreement shielded the full extent of the crimes that were committed,” Frankel said. “I think that what is equally shocking is what I call an extremely minimal punishment for this man, without really any public explanation as to why this happened.”
Frankel, along with fellow Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Al Lawson, said Inspector General Michael Horowitz must look into whether any Department of Justice policies, procedures, or practices were violated by Acosta at the time.
"If the Justice Department doesn't move forward with an investigation, we will take this to the appropriate committees," Frankel said.
Acosta’s office did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
The Democrats’ move followed a surprise development in the the courthouse that allowed Epstein to avoid a highly anticipated civil trial that could have allowed some of his accusers to testify for the first time.
The accusers’ lawyer, Bradley Edwards, had sued Epstein for accusing him of using the sex allegations as a way to fund a law partner’s Ponzi scheme. As a result of the settlement, Epstein had to apologize to the lawyer.
“Today was a necessary step in the long battle against Jeffrey Epstein,” said Virginia Roberts, who was a 16-year-old working at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort when she was approached by Epstein.
Soon after, she alleges, Epstein began instructing her on how to perform oral sex before sending her to a private island to have sex with his associates.
“This lawsuit was not about the victims, but our attorney. I am hoping this allows us, as victims, the time to tell our story.”
Roberts said she wasn’t sure if Acosta should face repercussions for his role in Epstein avoiding a criminal trial.
"I don't know whether he should resign or not but I do know this plea bargain is atrocious. It's just powerful men helping other powerful men,” she said.
Epstein could have faced life in prison if the U.S. Attorney’s office had decided to prosecute him for crimes contained in a 53-page document prepared by the FBI. Instead, after his lawyers met with Acosta, he was allowed to plead guilty to just two state charges: solicitation of prostitution and procurement of minors for prostitution.
The plea deal also sealed the probe into his alleged crimes, and the accusers were never notified of the deal or allowed to appear in court.
“The non-prosecution deal also had the effect of shutting down a Federal Bureau of Investigation examination of whether there were more victims and astonishingly granted immunity to potential co-conspirators,” the letter from Frankel and the other Democrats to Horowitz said.
According to court records, Epstein provided “valuable consideration”—or critical information—to federal investigators on another case. Though no details were provided, around the same time he was considered to be a crucial witness for the trial of two Bear Stearns executives who allegedly committed corporate securities fraud.
“[Acosta’s] seemingly unethical decision to drastically reduce the criminal penalties against this vile sexual predator and shield other co-conspirators is unacceptable for any public official, especially a Cabinet Secretary who now oversees sexual harassment prevention efforts in the workplace,” Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement.
“The American people and the victims of these horrific crimes deserve to know why justice was not served in this disturbing case, and the lack of transparency still cloaking it is very troubling.”