The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How did Jeffrey Epstein get away with it? Congress should inquire.

Jeffrey Epstein in custody in West Palm Beach, Fla, in July 2008. (Uma Sanghvi/AP)

THE CASE of wealthy serial sex offender Jeffrey Epstein is no advertisement for the fairness of American criminal justice. Mr. Epstein, owner of mansions, a small Caribbean island and private aircraft — and crony to a long list of the rich and famous — allegedly sexually abused dozens of minor girls at his Palm Beach, Fla., villa during the first decade of this century. Yet he pleaded guilty to Florida state charges involving just a single victim in 2008 and served only 13 months in a Palm Beach jail, during which he was let out on “work release” almost every day and received special security. He paid restitution and registered as a sex offender, but Mr. Epstein, 66, lives a comfortable life these days. We can only wonder how a less moneyed defendant who was not represented by a dream team of top legal talent would have fared.

Mr. Epstein could have faced a potential life sentence under federal law, but the U.S attorney’s office in South Florida, headed at the time by the current secretary of labor, Alexander Acosta, agreed not to prosecute. After lengthy negotiations with Mr. Epstein’s lawyers, federal prosecutors settled for his guilty plea in the Florida court and the sentence he got there. Mr. Acosta has repeatedly defended this deal as a legitimate exercise of prosecutorial discretion, in what might have been a tough case to win at trial.

Perhaps, but that does not account for one of the most questionable aspects of Mr. Acosta’s office’s conduct in the matter — its failure to disclose the non-prosecution agreement to Mr. Epstein’s victims in time for them to object. A Florida federal district judge has declared that decision not only unwise but also unlawful — a violation of the federal statute, the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, that Congress passed precisely to keep victims informed of such negotiations. Though the Justice Department argued in court that non-prosecution agreements, as opposed to plea bargains, were not specifically mentioned by the law, Judge Kenneth A. Marra concluded that such agreements are clearly encompassed by its intent. Federal prosecutors in the case even misled the victims by telling them an investigation was ongoing after the agreement ended it, the judge noted.

It merits emphasis that the judge did not challenge the decision to cut a deal — just Mr. Acosta’s office’s decision not to inform the victims. A Labor Department spokesperson told The Post, accurately, that the office’s decisions under Mr. Acosta “were approved by departmental leadership and followed departmental procedures.” Mr. Acosta has, in the past, lamented the light state sentence; he has noted that he feared the Epstein legal team would investigate and attack his prosecutors in personal terms if the case went forward, and that less was known about the number of victims in 2007.

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And it’s true: We continue to learn about Mr. Epstein’s crimes, thanks to investigative reporting by the Miami Herald. More could come out if, as one of Mr. Epstein’s accusers urges, a New York-based federal appeals court unseals documents in her civil suit. There is also a role for Congress to hold hearings about precisely why and how the federal government let Mr. Epstein off, and let his victims down.

Read more:

David Von Drehle: Open the Jeffrey Epstein files. All of them.

Kathleen Parker: How power and money colluded to let a sex-obsessed monster get away with abuse

David Von Drehle: Jeffrey Epstein’s plea deal is a travesty. But we can still find justice.

David Von Drehle: It pays to be rich. Just look at the lurid case of Jeffrey Epstein.