A federal judge in Florida ruled this week that prosecutors led by former U.S. attorney Alexander Acosta, now President Trump’s labor secretary, broke the law 11 years ago by concealing an unusually lenient plea deal with billionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein from underage girls who said the financier had molested them.
Now the question is whether Acosta will face any consequences.
Several victim advocacy groups have called for the official to be removed from his post in light of the judge’s ruling.
“He has proved himself incompetent on this issue and as an enemy of the victims,” said Marci Hamilton, academic director of Child USA, a nonprofit focused on preventing child abuse.
“Under Acosta’s leadership, a sexual predator and his accomplices walked away with a meager slap on the wrist,” said Shaunna Thomas, co-founder of UltraViolet, a women’s advocacy organization, in a statement.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders on Friday called the situation “complicated,” saying the case’s handling is “something we’re certainly looking into, but that they made the best possible decision and deal they could have gotten at that time.”
At issue is prosecutors’ deal with Epstein, a politically connected hedge fund manager with ties to Trump and Bill Clinton. Epstein pleaded guilty in 2008 to charges of solicitation of prostitution and procurement of minors for prostitution.
Sentencing guidelines could have landed Epstein in jail for life, but instead he served 13 months in a county jail. He was also regularly granted work release, which allowed him to swap a cell for his plush West Palm Beach office for 12-hour stretches.
The plea deal was unsealed in 2015 by a federal judge in a lawsuit. Then, a Miami Herald investigation last year revealed allegations against Epstein in greater detail — more than 30 women, now in their 20s and 30s, have accused the billionaire of molesting them between 1999 and 2006.
On Thursday, federal judge Kenneth Marra ruled Acosta’s team had violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, which entitles victims to know about big developments in their cases, by concealing the agreement from the victims.
Acosta explained in a 2011 letter that he allowed for Epstein’s short sentence after “a year-long assault on the prosecution and the prosecutors” by the financier’s “army of legal superstars.”
“The defense strategy was not limited to legal issues,” Acosta wrote. “Defense counsel investigated individual prosecutors and their families, looking for personal peccadilloes that may provide a basis for disqualification.”
“The office’s decisions were approved by departmental leadership and followed departmental procedures,” the Labor Department said Friday. The agency said the matter remains in litigation and referred further questions to the Justice Department, which declined to comment.
Legal analysts widely agree Epstein’s punishment was light, but experts expressed mixed views on whether the labor secretary should be forced out of work.
“I would vehemently oppose an effort to impeach Acosta,” said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who represented the last federal official ejected from office, a New Orleans judge who was found to have committed perjury in 2010.
Turley, who opposed Acosta’s nomination, would rather see him resign.
“This was not misconduct that the nominee concealed,” he said. “Moreover, he was confirmed despite the objections of many over his actions in the case.”
During Acosta’s 2017 confirmation hearings, Epstein’s name came up 59 times. Lawmakers voted 60 to 38 to approve his nomination.
“You are aware that Mr. Epstein served that 13 months,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said during the confirmation hearing. “He had to sleep at a county jail, but he was basically allowed to move and go around the community and do whatever he wants.”
“I am on record condemning that, and I think that was awful,” Acosta replied.
But Susan Low Bloch, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University, argued that the secret plea deal could be seen as a “high crime” and could compel the House to start the impeachment process,
What senators knew before they confirmed Acosta shouldn’t matter, Bloch said: “The offense doesn’t get waived or erased."
It’s unlikely, however, that most House members and two-thirds of the Republican-controlled Senate will see Acosta’s past as suddenly disqualifying, she added.
The Justice Department launched a probe into the matter earlier this month.
“The fact that it’s taken this long to get this far is heartbreaking and infuriating,’’ Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.), the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on oversight, said in a Thursday statement. “The Department of Justice should use this opportunity to reopen its non-prosecution agreement so that Epstein and anyone else who abused these children are held accountable.”
In a 33-page opinion, Marra, the Florida judge, wrote that Acosta’s team “misled” the girls — some as young as 14 — into thinking the government would continue to investigate Epstein, even though they closed the case.
Evidence showed Epstein, now 66, ran an international sex trafficking operation that targeted girls and sometimes brought them stateside from overseas, Marra wrote.
“Epstein worked in concert with others to obtain minors not only for his own sexual gratification, but also for the sexual gratification of others,” the judge wrote.