U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta was confronted in a House Appropriations subcommittee meeting on April 3 about his role in a 2008 plea arrangement involving alleged child rapist Jeffrey Epstein.
Acosta was the U.S. attorney for southern Florida at the time, while Epstein—a billionaire financier—was accused of operating an international child sex ring at his Palm Beach, Florida, mansion and 72-acre private island estate in the Caribbean.
Epstein could have received life in prison under human trafficking laws; instead, he pleaded guilty to two state felony charges of prostitution and served only 13 months in the Palm Beach County jail.
“This isn’t the first time you’ve ignored human trafficking,” Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) told Acosta.
The purpose of the committee meeting was to discuss President Donald Trump’s 2020 Labor Department budget request, but it took a turn when, after an hour of departmental funding inquiries from other members, Clark cited proposed cuts to a program linked to the federal government’s inter-agency task force on human trafficking. From there, she launched into an attack.
“When you were the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, your office investigated Jeffrey Epstein and found that there had been a sexual abuse pyramid scheme that involved at least 36 underage girls ranging from age 14 to 17. This is horrifying stuff,” Clark said.
“Do you think he’s a monster?” she asked.
“He engaged in vile crimes,” Acosta responded.
Clark recounted how Epstein and his associates recruited girls from shopping malls, and invited social guests to participate in alleged sexual assaults and rapes. She also explained that child prostitution charges don’t exist under federal law, only child sex trafficking, and that each offense carries a sentence ranging from 10 years to life in prison.
“Epstein should have been looking at a potential sentence of 360 years, at a minimum. But that’s not what happened,” said Clark.
The exchange grew even more tense when Clark suggested that Acosta is unfit to serve as a presidential cabinet member.
“If you, as U.S. attorney, as a prosecutor, where your job is to pursue justice, could not fight for these girls, how, as secretary of labor, can you tell this panel and the American people that you can responsibly oversee this budget, the Department of Labor, including human trafficking?” she asked.
After an uncomfortable silence, Clark pushed Acosta for an answer. “Is that a question?” he responded.
Acosta said the Department of Justice had defended the U.S. attorney’s office in its handling of the case, and that a grand jury had actually recommended a charge carrying no jail time at all. Acosta said he was forced to step in on what should have been a state-level prosecution.
“At the end of the day, Mr. Epstein went to jail. He was incarcerated. He registered as a sex offender. The world was put on notice that he was a sex offender and the victims received restitution,” Acosta said.
The case has sparked both outrage and intrigue more than a decade after Epstein’s lawyers and the U.S. attorney’s office negotiated the controversial non-prosecution agreement—partly due to speculation about the identities of Epstein’s social guests who may have participated in the alleged sexual abuses.
The plea deal, however, extended immunity to his potential co-conspirators and doesn’t name them.
But according to civil court documents, Epstein’s guests included entertainers, politicians, business magnates, and even royalty.
A coalition of 33 media organizations is currently attempting to unseal more than 1,000 documents from a civil suit involving Epstein’s former partner, British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell. The documents could offer new evidence about Epstein’s alleged abuses, and unmask some of his cohorts. Curiously, an unidentified party filed a motion on March 19, asking a federal appeals court in New York City to keep the documents under seal.
In February, a federal judge in Miami ruled that the U.S. attorney’s office violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act of 2004, when prosecutors failed to notify Epstein’s alleged victims that a plea arrangement was being negotiated.
“While the government spent untold hours negotiating the terms and implications of the NPA with Epstein’s attorneys, scant information was shared with victims. Instead, the victims were told to be ‘patient’ while the investigation proceeded,” the ruling stated.
The decision was devastating for Acosta, who now finds himself in the crosshairs of House Democrats—although he’s not without bipartisan defenders.
In a March 4 letter to the New York Times, Epstein’s own lawyers wrote to defend Acosta.
“The case lacked the credible and compelling proof that is required by federal criminal statutes,” they wrote. “An agreement rather than a trial is how over 97 percent of federal cases get resolved, through negotiations by two teams of experienced professionals.”
Acosta has also received support from his former first assistant deputy at the U.S. attorney’s office, Jeffrey Sloman, who became his successor under President Barack Obama.
In a Feb. 15 op-ed published in the Miami Herald, Sloman asserted that Acosta “acted with professionalism and integrity in handling the Jeffrey Epstein case,” and indicated that the apparent debacle stemmed from local incompetence.
“The Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office was going to allow [Epstein] to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and merely pay a fine. The local police rightly were outraged and brought the facts to us,” Sloman explained.
“After reviewing the case, we were appalled. Stunningly, the local prosecutors’ resolution had not even acknowledged that Epstein engaged in abhorrent sex acts with scores of children,” he said.
Sloman also said that Acosta is at risk of being scapegoated in the affair.
“An outstanding public servant is at risk of becoming collateral damage in Washington’s latest polarized conflagration. I won’t let that happen without first being heard,” he said.