Friday, Dec. 7, 2018 | 2 a.m.
It is the perverse good fortune of Alexander Acosta, Donald Trump’s secretary of labor, to be part of an administration so spectacularly corrupt that it’s simply impossible to give all its scandals the attention they deserve.
Last week, The Miami Herald published a blockbuster multipart exposé about how the justice system failed the victims of Jeffrey Epstein, a rich, politically connected financier who appears to have abused underage girls on a near-industrial scale. The investigation, more than a year in the making, described Epstein as running a sort of child molestation pyramid scheme, in which girls — some in middle school — would be recruited to give Epstein “massages” at his Palm Beach mansion, pressured into sex acts, then coerced into bringing him yet more girls. The Herald reported that Epstein was also suspected of trafficking girls from overseas.
What’s shocking is not just the lurid details and human devastation of his alleged crimes, but the way he was able to use his money to escape serious consequences, thanks in part to Acosta, then Miami’s top federal prosecutor. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Acosta took extraordinary measures to let Epstein — and, crucially, other unnamed people — off the hook.
The labor secretary, whose purview includes combating human trafficking, has done nothing to rebut The Herald’s reporting. (A spokesman for his department has referred reporters to his previous statements about the case.) It should end his career. The story might have been overshadowed by last week’s cascading revelations in the Trump-Russia scandal, or the news that acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker knew of numerous fraud complaints against a company he advised, to take just two examples of administration lawlessness. But while Acosta’s record covering up for a depraved plutocrat makes him a good fit for the Trump administration, it should disqualify him from public service.
As Herald journalist Julie K. Brown reported, in 2007, Epstein was facing a federal indictment that could have put him away for the rest of his life. In a deal with one of Epstein’s attorneys, however, Acosta, a rising star in Republican circles, short-circuited the federal investigation, letting Epstein plead guilty to two felony prostitution charges in state court. “Not only would Epstein serve just 13 months in the county jail, but the deal — called a non-prosecution agreement — essentially shut down an ongoing FBI probe into whether there were more victims and other powerful people who took part in Epstein’s sex crimes,” wrote Brown. It was, she wrote, “one of the most lenient deals for a serial child sex offender in history.”
Despite Florida’s strict sex offender laws, Epstein was given work-release to spend up to 12 hours a day, six days a week, in his Palm Beach office. Housed in a private wing of Palm Beach County jail, he hired his own security guards. During a subsequent year of probation, he was nominally under house arrest, but permitted to take his private jet on trips to Manhattan and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Prosecutors seem to have deliberately kept the details of the settlement from Epstein’s victims. Two of them are suing to overturn Epstein’s plea, arguing that it violated the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act, which requires prosecutors to notify victims of plea negotiations and sentencing. (Some of Epstein’s victims are expected in court for another lawsuit arising from the case, which begins Tuesday.)
Acosta’s motives for going easy on Epstein are hard to discern. Before his stint in Miami, he headed the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in George W. Bush’s White House, where he was known for his concern about sex trafficking. Yet with Epstein, Brown wrote, documents show that “Acosta not only buckled under pressure from Epstein’s lawyers, but he and other prosecutors worked with them to contain the case.” Why?
We don’t know, but one of Epstein’s victims, Virginia Roberts, told The Herald that Epstein didn’t just abuse her himself, he also “lent” her out to “politicians and academics and royalty.” She claimed in a 2015 affidavit that she’d had sex with both Prince Andrew of Britain — she included a photograph of them together — and with one of Epstein’s attorneys, Alan Dershowitz, now best known for his public defenses of Trump. (Dershowitz has said Roberts lied to try to extract money from wealthy men.)
Had the federal case gone forward, it could have shed an embarrassing spotlight on Epstein’s many famous associates, including Bill Clinton, a frequent passenger on Epstein’s private plane, nicknamed the “Lolita Express.”
During the 2016 presidential campaign, some pundits expected Trump to bring up Clinton’s relationship with Epstein. But after predicting in early 2015 that Epstein would cause Clinton “a lot of problems,” Trump rarely if ever mentioned it again. Perhaps that’s because Trump also counted Epstein as a friend, once affectionately describing him as a man who “likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”
Come January, Democrats will finally be able to investigate the Trump administration, and given all its misdeeds, they’ll have to be selective about which they pursue. But if Acosta is still part of the administration next month, there should be hearings into his handling of the Epstein case. Epstein’s ability to evade justice is of a piece with the elite impunity that Trump pretended to challenge, but actually embodies. Congress can send a message: Time’s up.
Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for The New York Times.