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. In the wake of his arrest, Alexander Acosta stepped down as Labor Secretary over his role in brokering Epstein's 2007 sweetheart plea deal. On August 10, 2019, Epstein died in an apparent jailhouse suicide. For more information, see The Daily Beast's reporting here.
At his senate confirmation hearing Wednesday morning, labor secretary nominee Alexander Acosta generally described the secret non-prosecution deal he oversaw as U.S. Attorney with billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein as “a good thing.”
According to law enforcement officials and alleged victims, between the years 1998 and 2007, financier and playboy Jeffrey Epstein—who socialized with the likes of Donald Trump and Bill Clinton—ran a kind of sexual pyramid scheme in Florida, New York, and on his private island in the U.S. Virgin Islands where he paid minors as young as 13 years old to perform sexual massages and recruit other girls for the same. Police eventually caught up with Epstein—after his alleged serial abuse of some 50 girls—but a secret agreement with federal prosecutors, overseen by Acosta, resulted in an unusual sentence that critics, including the alleged victims and local police, felt was far too lenient and allowed a member of the rich elite to evade appropriate punishment for his crimes.
After a round of questions from senators about overtime, worker protections, department budgets, and job training, Democratic senator Tim Kaine got right to it on Wednesday, pulling out a recent Washington Post story that rehashed all of the Epstein ugliness.
Asked whether he had worked to keep the plea deal quiet, and whether he declined to indict Epstein on federal charges despite his own office’s desire to do so, Acosta said, “That is not accurate.”
Acosta went on to say that a difficulty in the Department of Justice is that it “does not litigate in the public record or the media, but in court.” Acosta said that Epstein case was originally a state matter and disputed the notion that he hadn’t acted aggressively, noting that had he not stepped in, Epstein could have been charged even more leniently under a local grand jury.
“The grand jury in Palm beach county recommended a single count which would have resulted in zero jail time, zero registration as a sex offender and zero restitution.”
Declining to discuss specifics of the Epstein case, Acosta called his office’s sealing of the draft indictment “pretty typical,” and defended the deal in general terms.
“At the end of the day, based on the evidence, professionals within a prosecutor’s office decide that a plea that guarantees someone goes to jail, that guarantees he register generally, and guarantees other outcomes is a good thing.”
“That was a broadly held decision,” Acosta said.
Police in Palm Beach County, Florida arrested Epstein in 2008, after a months-long investigation that included stakeouts and interviews of local girls whom they determined to be victims. They took that evidence to prosecutors and suggested the billionaire be charged with several felonies, including lewd and lascivious molestation and multiple counts of unlawful sexual activity with a minor. If federal prosecutors had charged him according to police suggestions, the man with a little black book full of princes, presidents, and prime ministers could have faced 15 years in prison.
But after a meeting with Epstein’s high-priced and high-powered lawyers, including Gerald Lefcourt and Alan Dershowitz—who defended their client by reportedly having witnesses followed and discrediting alleged victims by offering their social media profiles as evidence that they weren’t as innocent as they claimed to be—state prosecutors recommended that Epstein be charged with a single misdemeanor. In response, the Palm Beach police chief wrote a letter to the Department of Justice asking that it step in.
It seemed to have little effect.
As an U.S. Attorney, Alex Acosta did get involved, but as he claimed in a 2011 letter, the state had been outmatched by Epstein, whose attorneys launched "a year-long assault" on prosecutors “more aggressive” than any Acosta had previously encountered.
“Our judgment in this case, based on the evidence known at the time, was that it was better to have a billionaire serve time in jail, register as a sex offender, and pay his victims restitution than risk a trial with a reduced likelihood of success,” he wrote in the letter.
In the end, Epstein paid settlements to dozens of accusers, and plead guilty to a single count of soliciting a minor. He served 13 months of an 18-month sentence in a Palm Beach county jail instead of state prison—16 hours of which, on every day but Sunday, he could spend at his home or in his office, due to a work release provision in the deal. Since 2008, Epstein has quietly paid settlements to scores of his alleged victims, and must register as a sex offender for life. Meanwhile, the women who allegedly procured girls for Epstein, referred to as “potential co-conspirators,” in the non-prosecution agreement, also received immunity from prosecution.
In the same 2011 letter, Acosta conceded that the work release and county jail location of his state sentence seemed like "highly unusual treatment" that "undermined the purpose of a jail sentence."
In 2016, several of Epstein’s alleged victims decried the plea deal, filing a civil lawsuit against the federal government and alleging Acosta’s office had violated their rights as victims by not notifying them of the secret agreement. The two sides have been in settlement talks since last summer, according to court documents. Brad Edwards, the attorney on behalf of the Jane Does, declined to comment on Acosta when reached by The Daily Beast, but has suggested he hopes the government will admit wrongdoing or perhaps pay a fine to resolve the case.
Federal prosecutors did offer some additional insight into Acosta’s decision during a 2015 hearing, were Assistant U.S. Attorney Dexter Lee suggested the alleged victims may have complicated any prosecution by the fact that they in turn became recruiters—finding additional victims, Lee said, for Epstein’s pyramid scheme in exchange for money.
"Your Honor, we believe there's an issue about whether or not Jane Does 1 and 2 may have been complicit in the offenses,” Lee said. “Specifically, that they themselves procured additional young women for Mr. Epstein and were paid commissions or referral fees for it.”
Epstein wasn’t the only scandal the labor secretary nominee was asked to address on Wednesday.
Senator Patty Murray questioned Acosta on his time as head of the civil rights division of the Department of Justice during the Bush administration between 2003 and 2005. During his tenure, the Department of Justice Inspector General found he relied on a subordinate, Bradley Schlozman, to make hiring decisions. Under Acosta’s watch, Schlozman illegally sought to purge liberal attorneys in favor of hiring more conservative, “real Americans” (as Schlozman put it). The Inspector General report never implicated Acosta himself in the department's politicization, but did determine he “took no action to investigate, bring the matter to the attention of their supervisors, or change Schlozman’s role in hiring for the Division.”
On that controversy, Acosta had little defense.
“That conduct should have never happened,” Acosta answered. “I deeply regret it.”