Sometimes, sexual abusers get lenient treatment because the police are unwilling to fully investigate their alleged crimes. Maybe they blame the victim, tacitly or not, or the evidence is murky, or victims are reluctant to come forward; maybe the acts occurred in a time and place where people tended not to see them as legally actionable. But sometimes, apparently, abusers escape real punishment because they are the very rich, very well-connected beneficiaries of a concerted exercise in raw power. That was the case, at least until this week, for Jeffrey Epstein, the sixty-six-year-old multimillionaire hedge-fund manager arrested on Saturday, at Teterboro Airport, in New Jersey, on charges of sex trafficking. Prosecutors said in the indictment that he had lured underage girls to his estate in Palm Beach, Florida, and to his town house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he sexually molested them. He then paid some of them to recruit other young girls. On Monday, investigators announced that they had seized hundreds, possibly thousands, of nude and semi-nude photographs of female subjects from Epstein’s New York home, some of which were kept in a safe. The United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey S. Berman, whose office brought the charges, told reporters, “This conduct, as alleged, went on for years and involved dozens of young girls, some as young as fourteen. . . . The alleged behavior shocks the conscience.” In court this week, Epstein entered a not-guilty plea to the charges.
The arrest brought renewed attention to the last time that Epstein was prosecuted, for similar crimes, in 2007. Back then, he ended up serving just thirteen months, and under remarkably cushy conditions. He had socialized, at various times, with Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, and Prince Andrew; Trump told New York magazine in 2002 that Epstein was “a terrific guy” and “a lot of fun to be with,” adding, “It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.” Epstein’s team of defense lawyers included Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard Law professor emeritus, and Kenneth Starr, the former independent counsel whose investigation led to Clinton’s impeachment. In 2010, according to a report in the New York Post, Epstein hosted a dinner party in his New York home for Prince Andrew, which was attended by, among others, Katie Couric, George Stephanopoulos, and Woody Allen. If Epstein’s story were a Netflix crime drama, it might all seem a bit implausible—the circles of people he moved in just a little too prominent; the life-style details (Epstein also has a private Caribbean island) a little too on-the-nose.
There is something astonishing about the degree to which Epstein has gone about his lavish life with impunity over the past decade or so, through the #MeToo movement and its fallout, throwing A-list parties, jetting around the world on his private plane. (He was arrested after flying in from Paris.) We may learn much more during the course of the prosecution about how and why he remained immune from real punishment for so long, as surely one of the country’s most privileged registered sex offenders. But one reason—a miscarriage of justice very much worth focussing on now—is the deal negotiated in 2007 by R. Alexander Acosta, who was then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida and is now the Secretary of Labor in the Trump Administration.
You can read about that deal and about the earlier case against Epstein in a number of news sources, but the most detailed and devastating account can be found in the series of articles by Julie K. Brown that ran in the Miami Herald, in November, 2018. Epstein’s M.O. was allegedly to rely on several employees to help procure young girls who would come to his Palm Beach mansion. There, in a chilly room with a pink-and-green couch, they’d massage him while he masturbated; in some cases, he made them move on to oral sex and intercourse. One of the girls, Courtney Wild, said that she was fourteen and wore braces at the time she started going to Epstein’s home. She told the Herald, “Jeffrey preyed on girls who were in a bad way, girls who were basically homeless. He went after girls who he thought no one would listen to and he was right.”
Following an F.B.I. investigation, federal prosecutors prepared a fifty-three-page indictment of Epstein. Had he been convicted of the charges, he could have been sent to prison for life. “This was not a ‘he said, she said’ situation. This was 50-something ‘shes’ and one ‘he’—and the ‘shes’ all basically told the same story,’ ” Michael Reiter, the retired Palm Beach police chief who worked on the case, told the Herald. But Epstein was never indicted. Instead, he pleaded guilty to one charge of solicitation, and served just over a year in county jail, during which time he was allowed out for twelve hours a day, six days a week, to go to his office. Moreover, Acosta signed a “non-prosecution agreement,” which meant that the F.B.I. would halt its investigation, and no longer look for other victims or perpetrators. Acosta also agreed, contrary to federal law, not to inform the victims of the deal that he had made with Epstein’s defense team. Later, he implied that he, too, had been a victim of sorts. In a 2011 letter to the Daily Beast, which was investigating the story, he cited what he called “a year-long assault on the prosecution and the prosecutors” by “an army of legal superstars”—including Dershowitz, Starr, and Jay Lefkowitz, a senior partner at the powerful law firm Kirkland & Ellis who had previously served as George W. Bush’s special envoy for human rights in North Korea. “I use the word assault intentionally,” Acosta wrote, “as the defense in this case was more aggressive than any which I, or the prosecutors in my office, had previously encountered.” He claimed that “defense counsel investigated individual prosecutors and their families, looking for personal peccadilloes that may provide a basis for disqualification.”
This week, in the wake of Epstein’s arrest, a number of prominent Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are calling for Acosta’s resignation. Congressional Republicans are standing by him; so is Trump, so far. On Tuesday, the President said that he’d known Epstein “like everybody in Palm Beach knew him”—a sobering thought, in itself—but had fallen out with him “a long time ago.” He added that he “felt very badly” for his Labor Secretary. At a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Acosta defended his handling of the case, saying that prosecutors in his office had at least made sure that Epstein went to jail, and had “put the world on notice that he was and is a sexual predator.” He added that the work release that Epstein enjoyed had taken him by surprise and was “complete B.S.”
These explanations aren’t good enough. If prosecutors were being bullied by Epstein’s lawyers, Acosta should have blown the whistle on them. One of the Labor Department’s tasks is to combat human trafficking, by enforcing labor laws that protect people from such exploitation. Acosta has shown himself too willing to give in to the rich and connected, and too intimidated by their well-paid lawyers. His resignation—and a legitimate and transparent proceeding against Epstein—would go some way toward righting the wrong done not only to Epstein’s victims but to our system of justice.
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