Could new Justice Department probe into Jeffrey Epstein's plea deal take down Trump Cabinet member?

The Justice Department will investigate how Labor Secretary Alex Acosta negotiated Epstein's sweetheart plea deal

Published February 7, 2019 5:14PM (EST)

FILE- In this July 30, 2008 file photo, Jeffrey Epstein is shown in custody in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Palm Beach Post, Uma Sanghvi, File)/Palm Beach Post via AP) (AP)
FILE- In this July 30, 2008 file photo, Jeffrey Epstein is shown in custody in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Palm Beach Post, Uma Sanghvi, File)/Palm Beach Post via AP) (AP)

The Justice Department has launched a probe into how federal government lawyers negotiated a controversial plea deal with a wealthy Florida man accused of having sex with underage girls. One of those lawyers, R. Alexander Acosta, is President Donald Trump's labor secretary.

Acosta reportedly helped Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire pedophile who was found guilty of abusing more than 80 women, as revealed in a blockbuster Miami Herald report, cut a secret non-prosecution agreement that shut down a federal investigation into a trans-Atlantic sex trafficking operation of underage girls when he was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. The alleged crimes could have put Epstein in prison for life. Instead, Acosta, as the U.S. attorney handling the case, negotiated an "extraordinary plea agreement that would conceal the extent of Epstein's crimes and the number of people involved," according to a sweeping in-depth expose, published last year by The Miami Herald.

Epstein eventually pleaded guilty to state charges involving a single victim in 2008. He served only 13 months in county jail, he was allowed to leave six days a week for 12 hours due to a work release provision. But, according to a civil lawsuit filed by two women who said they were among Epstein's victims, which was unexpectedly settled last year after more than a decade ago, one of the conditions of Epstein's plea agreement was that a much larger FBI investigation into Epstein and the other people who took part in his sex crimes would be shut down. The agreement also guaranteed that Epstein and the adult women he allegedly hired to procure young women to his mansion and arrange his sex sessions, whom the Herald referred to as his "co-conspirators," also received immunity from prosecution.

The investigation by The Herald revealed that Acosta, as a prosecutor in Miami, engineered the deal that kept the financier from facing federal charges related to the accusations. Under the terms of the agreement, Epstein pleaded guilty to state charges of soliciting prostitution from a minor, and the agreement was kept secret from other self-described victims until it was presented in court, so that they did not have the opportunity to object to the arrangement. The newspaper's reporting spurred members of Congress to ask Justice Department officials to launch an investigation into possible misconduct of federal officials who handled the Epstein case. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) called the Epstein plea deal an "epic miscarriage of justice."

The Justice Department notified Sasse on Wednesday that the department's Office of Professional Responsibility "has now opened an investigation into allegations that Department attorneys may have committed professional misconduct in the manner in which the Epstein criminal matter was resolved." The letter does not mention Acosta by name.

In response, Sasse said, "The victims of Epstein's child sex trafficking ring deserve this investigation — and so do the American people and the members of law enforcement who work to put these kinds of monsters behind bars."

"Jeffrey Epstein is a child rapist and there's not a single mom or dad in America who shouldn't be horrified by the fact that he received a pathetically soft sentence," Sasse added.

The Nebraska senator also praised the Justice Department and William Barr, Trump's nominee for attorney general, who vowed during his confirmation hearings to probe the allegations of misconduct.

A Labor Department spokesperson said in a statement that Acosta "welcomes the OPR's additional review of this matter."

The Justice Department "has continued to defend the Southern District of Florida’s actions across three administrations and several attorneys general on the grounds that the actions taken were in accordance with Department practices, procedures, and the law," the spokesperson said.

As labor secretary, Acosta's duties include overseeing human trafficking and international child labor laws. During his Senate confirmation hearing in March 2017, Acosta defended his record as a U.S. attorney, and was forced to address his decision not to indict Epstein on federal charges.

"At the end of the day, based on the evidence, professionals within a prosecutor's office decided that a plea that guarantees someone goes to jail, that guarantees he register [as a sex offender] generally and guarantees other outcomes, is a good thing,'" Acosta said at the time.

Acosta has previously maintained that his office did the right thing and that the case against Epstein became stronger after he was convicted, as more women came forward with allegations against him.

"The bottom line is this: Mr. Jeffrey Epstein, a billionaire, served time in jail and is now a registered sex offender," Acosta wrote in 2011, according to documents obtained by The Daily Beast. "He has been required to pay his victims restitution, though restitution clearly cannot compensate for the crime. And we know much more today about his crimes because the victims have come forward to speak out."

By Shira Tarlo

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