Protecting sleaze

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Protecting sleaze

Trump's Labor Secretary, Alex Acosta, broke the law to deliver a sweetheart deal to a wealthy pedophile, a federal judge ruled last week.

At issue is the plea agreement that Acosta, then the U.S. Attorney in Miami, negotiated with hedge fund billionaire Jeffrey Epstein in 2008. The agreement allowed Epstein, who is accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls, to plead guilty to two prostitution charges in state court. Epstein ended up serving just over one year in a Palm Beach County jail, although he was permitted to spend much of his time in his nearby luxury office.

Federal prosecutors are given broad latitude to negotiate plea agreements. But Acosta crossed the line when, at the request of Epstein's attorneys, he failed to inform Epstein's victims about the deal.

The Crime Victims Rights Act affords victims the right "to be informed in a timely manner of any plea bargain," the right "to be reasonably heard at any public proceeding," and the right "to confer with the attorney for the Government in the case."

Acosta ignored all of those rights when he intervened in the case and, at the request of Epstein's powerful attorneys, did not inform any of the victims about the plea deal.

Now, as Secretary of Labor, Acosta is in charge of overseeing the nation's human trafficking laws.

What Epstein did

Jeffrey Epstein created a "cult-like network of underage girls" who he "coerced into having sex acts behind the walls of his opulent waterfront mansion." The federal court said that Epstein "sexually abused more than 30 minor girls." The Miami Herald "identified about 80 women who say they were molested or otherwise sexually abused by Epstein from 2001 to 2006." A former butler of Epstein kept a book with the names of hundreds of girls Epstein allegedly recruited for sex.

The girls targeted by Epstein were generally between 13 and 16. They were offered a few hundred dollars to give Epstein a massage in his bedroom, where he demanded they engage in sex acts. Most "came from disadvantaged families, single-parent homes or foster care." He used his victims to recruit other girls from local malls.

"His appetite was insatiable. He wanted new girls, fresh, young faces every single day — that was just the sickness that he had," Virginia Roberts, an alleged Epstein victim, said. Roberts says she was recruited by an associate of Epstein while she was working at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort.

Epstein also allegedly supplied girls to his friends and associates.

How Acosta broke the law

Had Acosta prosecuted Epstein in federal court for sex trafficking, Epstein could easily have spent the rest of his life in prison. There was "substantial physical evidence and multiple witnesses backing up the girls’ stories."

Instead, Acosta agreed to a deal where Epstein would plead guilty to two state prostitution charges, relating to one 14-year-old girl, in exchange for an agreement not to be prosecuted in federal court.

Epstein's victims were not prostitutes. They were young girls, almost all below the age of consent in Florida, who were coerced and manipulated by Epstein. "She was taken advantage of twice — first by Epstein, and then by the criminal justice system that labeled a 14-year-old girl as a prostitute," the girl's attorney told the Miami Herald.

As part of the deal, Acosta also agreed not to prosecute any of Epstein's accomplices — individuals who could have provided authorities with more details about the scope of Epstein's crimes. The deal essentially shut down the ongoing FBI investigation which was still uncovering more victims.

Acosta was required to notify Epstein's victims about the proposed plea agreement under the Crime Victim's Rights Act. But Acosta agreed to keep the deal secret in a meeting with one of Epstein's lawyers, Jay Lefkowitz.

I also want to thank you for the commitment you made to me during our October 12 meeting in which you . . . assured me that your Office would not . . . contact any of the identified individuals, potential witnesses, or potential civil claimants and their respective counsel in this matter

Ultimately, the victims were not informed of the non-prosecution agreement "until after it was signed." That means none of them were in court when the judge approved the agreement.

The state prosecutor then appeared to mislead the judge about what the victims knew, saying they all supported the agreement.

“Are there more than one victim?’’ Circuit Court Judge Deborah Dale Pucillo asked the prosecutor at Epstein’s sentencing on June 30, 2008.

“There’s several,’’ replied assistant state prosecutor Lanna Belohlavek.

“Are all the victims in both of these cases in agreement with the terms of this plea?’‘ Pucillo later asked.

“Yes,’‘ Belohlavek replied, telling the judge that she had spoken to “several” of Epstein’s victims.

The decision to exclude the victims from the process was not only illegal, but it may have been necessary to convince the judge to approve the plea bargain. It seems doubtful that a judge would approve a sentence of fewer than two years in county jail if numerous women testified that he had sexually abused them as underaged girls.

Epstein's idyllic prison sentence

Epstein technically spent 13 months incarcerated but "[i]nstead of being sent to state prison, Epstein was housed in a private wing of the Palm Beach County jail." Most of that time he was not actually behind bars. The Sheriff's Office "allowed Epstein work release privileges, which enabled him to leave the jail six days a week, for 12 hours a day, to go to a comfortable office that Epstein had set up in West Palm Beach." This was allowed despite explicit rules prohibiting work release for sex offenders.

Epstein "hired Palm Beach sheriff’s deputies for his security details, paying them for the hours they spent monitoring him on work release." At his office, Epstein "accepted visitors, both male and female," while the security detail stayed in a separate room. There was a log kept of who Epstein met with but it "no longer exists."

Epstein spent an additional year under "house arrest" which was "filled with trips on his corporate jet to Manhattan and to his home in the U.S. Virgin Islands."

Special treatment in New York

In 2011, Epstein "petitioned to have his sex offender status reduced in New York." Epstein has a home in New York and is required to renew his registration every 90 days. Astoundingly, an attorney working for New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance, appeared in court to support Epstein's petition.

"I have to tell you, I’m a little overwhelmed because I have never seen a prosecutor’s office do anything like this," the judge said.

She denied Epstein's petition.

What Trump is saying

Trump dismissed Acosta's involvement and the findings by the federal judge. "I really don’t know too much about it. I know he’s done a great job as labor secretary and that seems like a long time ago," Trump said.

In 2002, Trump joked about Epstein's sexual habits. "I've known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy. He's a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side," Trump quipped.  

Epstein was also a major Democratic donor and friends with Bill Clinton.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the case was "complicated" but Acosta "made the best possible decision and deal [he] could have gotten at that time."

What Acosta is saying

Asked about the case in his 2017 nomination hearing to be Secretary of Labor, Acosta said the outcome was "a point of pride."

In a 2011 letter to the media, however, Acosta obliquely admits to being intimidated by Epstein's team of "legal superstars."

What followed was a year-long assault on the prosecution and the prosecutors. I use the word assault intentionally, as the defense in this case was more aggressive than any which I, or prosecutors in my office, had previously encountered. Mr. Epstein hired an army of legal superstars: Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz, former Judge and then Pepperdine Law Dean Kenneth Starr, former Deputy Assistant to the President and then Kirkland & Ellis Partner Jay Lefkowitz, and several others…

The defense strategy was not limited to legal issues. Defense counsel investigated individual prosecutors and their families, looking for personal peccadilloes that may provide a basis for disqualification.

After the federal court's ruling last week, Acosta said that his actions were "approved by departmental leadership and followed departmental procedures." He declined further comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

The Dershowitz factor

Virginia Roberts said she had sex with one of Epstein's lawyers, Alan Dershowitz, when she was underaged. Dershowitz denies the accusations.

Dershowitz admits to receiving a massage at Epstein's house but said it was not sexual and the woman who gave him the massage was not underage.

Dershowitz is a prominent public defender of Trump and the White House.

Members of Congress call on Acosta to resign

In a letter to Trump, several members of Congress, led by Democrats in Florida, demanded Acosta's resignation:

This despicable unjust plea deal that was arranged by Acosta showed no respect for the suffering of the victims and credible accounts of human trafficking and was a clear abuse of power for political gain,” the lawmakers write.

We strongly believe that Secretary Acosta was negligent in his duty to represent the best interests of the victims and the U.S. Government. As such, we request that you immediately demand his letter of resignation.

The big picture

Throughout the process, Epstein has been able to exercise an unusual amount of influence over people in power. The source of that influence is the subject of some speculation.

It could just be that Epstein is a rich guy who bought fancy attorneys who were able to negotiate a tremendous deal.

But Epstein also allegedly procured girls for other powerful men in his orbit. The decision to abruptly shut down the investigation and strike a favorable plea deal with Epstein prevented a thorough and public examination of the facts. It's a decision that may have benefited a lot of people in Epstein's world.

What's next

The ruling by the federal judge did not immediately invalidate the non-prosecution agreement. Instead, he "gave federal prosecutors 15 days to confer with Epstein’s victims and their attorneys to come up with a settlement."

Even with the federal non-prosecution agreement in place, it only applies to conduct in Florida. Epstein could potentially face prosecution in New York, where similar activity is alleged to have occurred. There is no statute of limitations for federal sex trafficking laws.

Thanks for reading!

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