‘We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail…’
(Ben Sellers, Liberty Headlines) Facing a firestorm of controversy over a 2006 plea deal that allowed billionaire sex-offender Jeffrey Epstein to walk free after 13 months, current Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta—then a U.S. attorney out of Florida—defended the decision to accept a compromise instead of “rolling the dice” on federal prosecution.
The case against Epstein—who is accused of sexually abusing young girls and making them available to other powerful figures on his “Lolita Express” private jet—resurfaced this week as federal prosecutors in New York brought charges against him.
“Each one of these cases is devastating and saddening,” Acosta said at a press conference Wednesday, “but I also think it’s important to realize that the prosecutors were trying to do the right thing.”
Acosta, who provided affidavits from investigators and attorneys in his former office, said the Justice Department took the rare step of invervening with a non-prosecution agreement to ensure Epstein faced some measure of accountability from state-level charges that would have otherwise resulted in no jail time.
“Simply put, the Palm Beach state attorney’s office was ready to let Epstein walk free—no jail time, nothing,” Acosta said.
By contrast, the plea deal brokered by Acosta’s office not only assured Epstein’s incarceration, but forced him to register as a sexual offender and provided the means for victims to seek financial restitution through civil trials, while arranging for Epstein to cover victims’ attorney’s fees.
Even so, Acosta called the New York prosecution a “very, very good thing” and encouraged more victims to step forward to assist any ongoing investigations.
“Epstein’s actions absolutely deserve a stiffer sentence,” Acosta said. “… He should be prosecuted in any state in which he committed a crime.”
Acosta expressed heartfelt sympathy for the victims in the case—some of whom have since come out publicly to say he and his office had failed them.
“I’m not here to try to say that I can stand in their shoes,” Acosta said. “… We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail. He needed to go to jail … and that was the focus.”
But Acosta said a federal case was by no means a sure thing and that the plea deal assured at least some justice.
“There is a big gulf between sufficient evidence to go to trial and sufficient evidence to be confident in the outcome of that trial,” he said.
While a case in the post-MeToo era might see a different outcome, Acosta said prosecutors faced the concern that some of the child victims at the time were reluctant to testify to their traumatic experiences or that they may have faced additional trauma by having their credibility attacked.
“We now have 12 years of knowledge and hindsight and we live in a different world,” he said. “… Today’s world understands that when interviewing victims, when eliciting testimony, that testimony can be contradictory.”
Epstein’s wealth and political connections further complicated matters. Both President Bill Clinton (who reportedly flew more than two dozen times on the Lolita Express) and then-business mogul Donald Trump were on friendly terms with the financier, though both recently denied knowing about his crimes and said they had long since severed ties.
Acosta, facing down considerable speculation that he may resign or be forced out by the current president, said his relationship with both Trump and White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney remained strong.
However, Acosta added, because Cabinet members serve at the pleasure of the president, he would obligingly resign if Trump asked him to.
“If at some point he says, ‘Look, you’re not the right person for this now’ or ‘you’re standing in the way,’ I respect that,” Acosta said.
Acosta also noted that although he had avoided speaking out publicly prior to the press conference Wednesday due to the ongoing litigation, he would be open, when all legal matters had concluded, to meet with victims personally and hear them out.
While he strongly defended the decision that his team of experienced prosecutors had made in weighing the 2006 case against Epstein, Acosta said that after looking back on it and hearing the victims recount their experiences in interviews, he did regret that Epstein got off too easily.
“‘No regrets’ is a very hard question. … As you watch these victim interviews, it’s very obvious that the victims feel this was not a sufficient outcome,” he said.
“… You always look back and say ‘what if,'” he continued. “What I can say is, at the time… this was the view of the office. There is a value to a sure guilty plea because letting him walk … would have been absolutely awful.”