In a conspiracy-theory-sodden era, the story of Jeffrey Epstein, a billionaire abuser of underage girls, stands out both for its harrowing veracity and for the impunity it reveals. Epstein molested dozens of girls since at least 2001 and provided other, still-anonymous accomplices with girls to abuse. But Epstein, who once counted Bill Clinton and David Copperfield among his acquaintances, is not in prison, nor is he likely to go to prison at any point in the near future. As the Miami Herald first reported in an exhaustive investigation, Epstein owes his freedom, in part, to the efforts of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, who, in his previous role as a U.S. Attorney in Miami, declined to prosecute Epstein under federal sex-trafficking laws. A conviction under these laws could have put him in prison for the rest of his life. Instead, Acosta and his fellow prosecutors worked closely with Epstein’s legal team, which included Alan Dershowitz and Kenneth Starr, to negotiate a non-prosecution agreement that allowed him to plead guilty to two charges of prostitution. He served 13 months in a private wing of the county jail in 2007. Prosecutors then agreed to seal the deal without informing Epstein’s victims that any agreement had been reached at all.
The Justice Department had already opened an investigation into the Epstein prosecution, and on Thursday, Acosta found himself in even deeper trouble. Two of Epstein’s victims had sued over the deal, arguing that prosecutors, including Acosta, violated a federal law that grants victims of crime the right to be notified of potential plea deals and to confer with attorneys for the government. A federal judge has now ruled in their favor, the Herald reported. U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Marra found that prosecutors, including Acosta, broke the law by keeping the deal from Epstein’s victims. “Particularly problematic was the Government’s decision to conceal the existence of the [agreement] and mislead the victims to believe that federal prosecution was still a possibility,” Marra wrote. “When the Government gives information to victims, it cannot be misleading. While the Government spent untold hours negotiating the terms and implications of the [agreement] with Epstein’s attorneys, scant information was shared with victims.’’
It’s not yet clear if Marra’s ruling will necessarily force Acosta from office. According to the Herald, Marra gave victims’ attorneys and the government 15 days to reach some kind of resolution, though the verdict didn’t spell out what that resolution could look like. The Justice Department says on its website that employees who “willfully or wantonly” fail to comply with the law could face suspension or termination, but Acosta no longer works for the department. And until he was implicated in the Epstein deal, Acosta enjoyed a relatively uncontroversial public profile by the standards of the Trump administration. That quietude is at an end, as he no longer faces a scandal but a legal crisis. Even so, his resignation doesn’t quite seem assured. In perhaps any other presidential administration, Marra’s verdict would lead swiftly to an Acosta resignation. Trump’s Cabinet is notably corrupt, however, and while several of its members have indeed resigned when waters became too hot for them to tolerate, there’s no clear, consistent red line that a Trump secretary has to cross before they remove themselves from office. Acosta also doesn’t serve a president renowned for his deep commitment to protecting women and girls from abuse. The same culture of impunity that insulates elite predators like Epstein from justice could keep Acosta in power.
Unless, of course, the secretary chooses a different path. Marra’s verdict can’t rectify old damages, but Acosta could help mend things further by voluntarily removing himself from power. His resignation is now long overdue.