WASHINGTON — Monday’s indictment of billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein on two federal counts of sex trafficking girls as young as 14 threatens to cast a shadow over a key figure in the Trump administration.
In 2008, as a federal prosecutor, now-Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta arranged a non-prosecution agreement that put Epstein in the Palm Beach County jail for a mere 13 months for serial sex offenses.
Epstein pleaded not guilty to the New York counts on Monday.
Epstein’s unusually short sentence became the focus of a series, “Perversion of Justice” in the Miami Herald, which described the sentence as the “deal of a lifetime.”
But in a 2011 letter, Acosta wrote that the story may seem clear after the deal, but, “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 reduced likelihood of success.”
At a news conference in Manhattan, federal prosecutors announced they had seized photos of nude underage girls when they searched Epstein’s New York mansion over the weekend. If convicted, Epstein, 66, could face a sentence as long as 45 years, which the U. S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman, told reporters, is “basically a life sentence.”
Epstein’s ownership of two private planes added to prosecutors’ perception that he is a flight risk, hence their request that the court keep him in jail pending trial. Berman also requested that other victims who have not come forward call 1-880-CALL FBI.
Berman told reporters he did not feel bound by the 2008 non-prosecution agreement.
The 14-page indictment alleged multiple instances of Epstein sexually exploiting minors from his homes in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Florida, between 2002 and 2005.
It also gave news organizations cause to dredge up Epstein’s ties with President Donald Trump, former President Bill Clinton — who was a frequent flier on Epstein’s private plane — and Britain’s Prince Andrew. Other prominent figures linked to Epstein include his one-time attorneys, Alan Dershowitz, who represented O.J. Simpson, and Clinton special prosecutor Ken Starr.
In 2002 when he was interviewed for a largely flattering profile on Epstein, Trump told New York Magazine, “I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”
Epstein’s light sentence was an issue during Acosta’s confirmation hearings. Acosta argued that any deal that sent a sex offender to jail and made him register as a sex offender was a “good thing.”
“His handling of a case involving sex trafficking of underage girls when he was a U.S. attorney suggests he won’t put the interests of workers and everyday people ahead of the powerful and well-connected,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., explaining her vote against Acosta’s confirmation as labor secretary.
Especially galling to victims’ advocates were the terms of Epstein’s confinement.
“Unlike other convicted sex offenders, Epstein didn’t face the kind of rough justice that child sex offenders do in Florida state prisons,” the Miami Herald reported. “Instead of being sent to state prison, Epstein was housed in a private wing of the Palm Beach County jail. And rather than having him sit in a cell most of the day, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office allowed Epstein work release privileges, which enabled him to leave the jail six days a week, for 12 hours a day, to go to a comfortable office that Epstein had set up in West Palm Beach.”
“I’d be shocked if anybody was getting that kind of deal at the Clark County Detention Center in Las Vegas,” said former Nevada U.S. Attorney Gregory A. Brower.
Brower was especially interested in Berman’s assertion that he was not bound by Acosta’s agreement. “While it appears that career prosecutors in the Miami U.S. attorney’s office approved of the non-prosecution agreement, a federal judge recently found that the deal was defective because the victims were not notified,” said Brower, now a partner with the firm Brownstein Hyatt. “And, in any event, as the new indictment announced today by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York suggests, that Miami agreement did not bind other U.S. attorney’s offices within” the Justice Department.
The November “Perversion of Justice” series and Monday’s indictments have added volume to the argument that Acosta should go.
“Why is Acosta still in the @realDonaldTrump administration?” Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif, tweeted.
But Trump has resisted calls for Acosta’s scalp. When a reporter asked Trump about Epstein on Sunday, Trump responded, “I don’t know about it.” The White House would not reply to questions about the news.
‘You bring your case’
“If they thought they had a triable case with their 53-page indictment, you bring your case,” former federal prosecutor Richard Serafini said of a brief Acosta’s office filed against Epstein.
“There are no guarantees,” Serafini added. “It seems to me that a lot of prosecutors would have brought the case.”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., tweeted that she wanted “Acosta to finally answer for his weak plea agreement.”
But Epstein’s political ties aren’t just to Republicans. He was also a friend of Clinton’s.
Clinton spokesman Angel Ureña released this statement through Twitter: “President Clinton knows nothing about the terrible crimes Jeffrey Epstein pleaded guilty to in Florida some years ago, or those with which he has been recently charged in New York.
“In 2002 and 2003, President Clinton took a total of four trips on Jeffrey Epstein’s airplane: one to Europe, one to Asia, and two to Africa, which included stops in connection with the work of the Clinton Foundation, and his Secret Service detail traveled on every leg of every trip.
“He had one meeting with Epstein in his Harlem office in 2002, and around the same time made one brief visit to Epstein’s New York apartment with a staff member and his security detail.
“He’s not spoken to Epstein in well over a decade, and has never been to Little St. James Island, Epstein’s ranch in New Mexico, or his residence in Florida,”
Statement on Jeffrey Epstein. pic.twitter.com/98ha9YYd1l
— Angel Ureña (@angelurena) July 8, 2019
Christine Pelosi, the daughter of the House speaker, tweeted, “This Epstein case is horrific and the young women deserve justice. It is quite likely that some of our faves are implicated but we must follow the facts and let the chips fall where they may — whether on Republicans or Democrats. #WeSaidEnough #MeToo.”