Alexander Acosta, now U.S. labor secretary, was the U.S. attorney in South Florida who struck a secret plea deal with wealthy sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)
Columnist

The aim of the victims’ rights movement, which arose in the 1970s and has swept through every state in the union and changed federal laws in the years since, is often summed up simply: Crime victims have the right to be “informed, present and heard.”

All these rights were trampled by Alexander Acosta, formerly the U.S. attorney in South Florida and currently U.S. secretary of labor, when he struck a secret deal with wealthy sex offender Jeffrey Epstein to shield Epstein from federal investigation and prosecution. Though Acosta was in possession of a 53-page draft indictment charging that the well-connected financier was a serial child molester, he instead immunized Epstein — and any possible co-defendants — in exchange for a comparatively trifling plea deal in state court.

While this was being worked out, Acosta’s representatives misled Epstein’s young victims by telling them the FBI was hard at work on their cases and asking them to “be patient.” Even when a handful of the victims — who may number in the hundreds — learned at the last minute that Epstein was entering a guilty plea and receiving a slap on the wrist, they still weren’t told that the federal case was being dropped.

And because these victims were not informed, they were not present in court to oppose the deal and could not be heard by the sentencing judge protesting this disgraceful sham.

Paul Cassell, perhaps the nation’s foremost legal authority on victims’ rights, has petitioned a federal judge in Florida to invalidate Epstein’s arrangement on grounds that it violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act (CVRA) of 2004. Given Epstein’s last-minute settlement on Dec. 4 of a civil case that might have aired this tawdry laundry, Cassell’s suit may be the last chance these victims have for their day in court.

Pleading for action in a lawsuit that has been pending since shortly after Epstein’s 2008 plea deal, Cassell, a law professor at the University of Utah, asserts: “The undisputed facts of this case prove that, rather than forthrightly discharging its obligations to numerous child sexual assault victims, the Government chose to enter into a secret deal with the man who had victimized them. Perhaps before Congress enacted the CVRA, such outrageous behavior could escape a judicial response. But now that the CVRA is the law of the land, the Court is obligated to take all necessary steps to ‘ensure’ that the victims’ rights are protected.”

The government’s lackluster reply contends that Acosta satisfied the law’s requirement to “confer” with victims when federal authorities handed them a phone number for the FBI. But even Acosta himself appears to be embarrassed by the episode. In 2011, when the Daily Beast was digging into this sunlight-resistant scandal, he wrote a lengthy apologia addressed “To whom it may concern.”

If he had known at the time how monstrous Epstein’s behavior actually was, things might have gone differently, Acosta wrote. “Many victims have since spoken out,” he averred, (though he assiduously avoided hearing them at the time), and “physical evidence has since been discovered” (which federal investigators could have found if he had not prevented them from continuing to look for it).

Acosta said he entered the case at the request of police in Palm Beach. They believed the local prosecutor was going easy on Epstein — despite the parade of girls as young as 13 or 14 recruited to “massage” him — because of his wealth and connections, which included Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Michael Bloomberg and Britain’s Prince Andrew. Immediately, Acosta claims he was hit with “a year-long assault” by an all-star defense team (with close ties to the same Washington powerhouse firm where Acosta had previously worked, Kirkland & Ellis). Epstein’s team was “more aggressive than any which I, or the prosecutors in my office, had previously encountered.” They dug into the personal lives of Acosta’s lawyers looking for “peccadilloes,” he wrote, and went over his head to the upper ranks of the Justice Department to get what they wanted.

Epstein attorney Alan Dershowitz has dismissed this as sour grapes, saying, “We outlawyered him.” I guess that depends on how you define lawyering.

A more respectable argument for the defense goes like this: There’s no way to undo a plea deal after the defendant has complied with all the terms, however lenient. But U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra can give the victims an overdue moral victory by ruling that the deal was in fact illegal — a violation of the 2004 law. Leave the remedy to be fought out later.

Meanwhile, Congress should act vigorously on bipartisan calls for an investigation of this travesty. The balance of powers cannot tolerate a justice system that flouts the plain meaning and intent of a law. If the alleged victims of Jeffrey Epstein and his co-conspirators cannot be heard in a courtroom, let them be heard in open testimony on Capitol Hill.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.