Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta defended the controversial 2008 plea deal he cut with financier Jeffrey Epstein in a lengthy news conference Wednesday. He spent much of it casting his decision as a choice. The choice, according to Acosta, was between (1) a plea deal that would put Epstein behind bars and (2) either state charges that were insufficient or a federal prosecution that might fail.
“He needed to go to jail,” Acosta said in defending the decision to cut a deal, “and that was the focus.”
But what if that’s a false choice?
There are many questions emanating from the Epstein plea deal Acosta agreed to as a U.S. attorney in Miami, now that Epstein has been indicted on a charge of child trafficking. Epstein only had to register as a sex offender and wound up going to jail for just 13 months — a much shorter sentence than the one he faces today.
Chief among them is this one: Why did that decision have to be made right then and there? If the evidence wasn’t there yet to be confident in a large-scale federal case, why not investigate further and hopefully uncover what federal prosecutors in New York revealed on Monday?
As we’ve found out in recent days, there was clearly more evidence there to discover. The new indictment involves conduct that allegedly took place between 2002 and 2005 — years before the plea deal — and spanned Epstein’s homes in New York and Palm Beach, Fla. But the deal Acosta cut with Epstein included a non-prosecution agreement that effectively ended the investigation. The non-prosecution agreement was included in the deal even though, as we found out last year in a newly revealed FBI document, the FBI was still interviewing potential witnesses and victims “from across the United States” at the time.
NBC News’s Peter Alexander asked Acosta that question — why not just keep investigating? — but Acosta didn’t fully answer it. He instead emphasized that it only shut down the investigation in the Southern District of Florida and that the victims who were known at the time were allowed to pursue civil litigation.
“That does not mean that the investigation had to end nationwide,” Acosta said, adding: “And as we saw in New York, investigations have proceeded in other districts.”
As we’ve seen, though, it would be more than a decade before another office would discover enough evidence to confidently indict Epstein. It’s logical to ask how much sooner that could have come about if the investigation in Florida hadn’t been forced to a conclusion.
That’s a huge what-if, and such decisions are undoubtedly very difficult. Acosta was patient and accommodating to reporters on Wednesday. He answered many questions about the matter over the course of nearly an hour. He was quick to point to affidavits from a career prosecutor and an FBI agent who worked on the case effectively vouching for him. He shrugged off questions about his political future, saying his appearance was more about setting the record straight when it came to a tough decision.
But the deal that was cut is one thing; the timing of it was another. And by casting himself and federal prosecutors as coming to the rescue of a flawed and inadequate state prosecution by cutting a deal with Epstein, he’s not accounting for the full range of options.
He’d do better to offer a more substantial answer to Alexander’s question.