UN­RE­PEN­TANT ACOSTA SAYS HE PROP­ERLY HAN­DLED EP­STEIN CASE

La­bor Sec­re­tary Alex Acosta spoke at a news con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day to ad­dress is­sues re­lated to the pros­e­cu­tion of con­victed sex of­fender and ac­cused sex traf­ficker Jef­frey Ep­stein.

Miami Herald - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID SMILEY AND ALEX DAUGHERTY dsmi­[email protected]­ami­her­ald.com adaugh­[email protected]­clatchydc.com

Un­der pres­sure to re­sign, U.S. La­bor Sec­re­tary Alex Acosta pushed back Wed­nes­day against as­ser­tions that he ne­go­ti­ated a “sweet­heart deal” years ago in South Florida with ac­cused Palm Beach pe­dophile Jef­frey Ep­stein and cast him­self not as a door­mat for a wealthy sex of­fender but as a cham­pion for dozens of abused teenage girls.

Acosta, who was the U.S. at­tor­ney for the South­ern Dis­trict of Florida when the of­fice set aside a pre­pared but never filed 53-page in­dict­ment over a se­ries of months in 2007-2008, was un­re­pen­tant dur­ing an hour-long news con­fer­ence called at the be­hest of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

Acosta did not apol­o­gize or take any per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity for al­low­ing Ep­stein to plead guilty to lesser state pros­ti­tu­tion charges. And he did not quit.

Acosta said going to trial then would have been a “roll of the dice” de­spite the ex­is­tence of three dozen vic­tims. Acosta ar­gued that the Palm Beach state at­tor­ney com­pli­cated any fed­eral case by pre­vi­ously pur­su­ing only a mis­de­meanor charge and a

fine against Ep­stein.

“Simply put, the Palm Beach State At­tor­ney’s Of­fice was ready to let Ep­stein walk free, no jail time, noth­ing. Pros­e­cu­tors in my Florida of­fice found this to be completely un­ac­cept­able, and they be­came in­volved,” Acosta said.

The former Palm Beach state at­tor­ney, Barry Krischer, promptly is­sued a state­ment ac­cus­ing Acosta of rewrit­ing his­tory.

“Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors do not take a back­seat to state pros­e­cu­tors. That’s not how the sys­tem works in the real world,” Krischer wrote.

Acosta has been un­der in­tense pres­sure fol­low­ing Ep­stein’s ar­rest over the week­end in New Jer­sey. Ep­stein, who has op­u­lent homes around the world, in­clud­ing what’s re­put­edly one of the largest pri­vate res­i­dences in Man­hat­tan, had just ar­rived on his pri­vate jet from Paris. In the New York in­dict­ment un­sealed Mon­day, pros­e­cu­tors al­lege he preyed on dozens of teenage girls from 2002 to 2005 in

New York and Palm Beach — sim­i­lar to the al­le­ga­tions re­viewed a dozen years ago by Acosta.

Ac­cord­ing to court records and vic­tim state­ments, Ep­stein ran what amounted to a sex­ual pyra­mid scheme. He dis­patched re­cruiters to en­tice un­der­age girls to come to his water­front Palm Beach es­tate to give him nude mas­sages, which often led to un­wanted sex­ual as­saults. He paid the girls — and of­fered them more if they re­cruited other girls to come to his home.

In a let­ter Mon­day to the judge pre­sid­ing over Ep­stein’s ar­raign­ment, Ge­of­frey S. Ber­man, the top fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor in New York, re­ferred to Ep­stein as a “serial sex­ual preda­tor.”

Acosta has been ac­cused of kow­tow­ing to the po­lit­i­cally con­nected hedge­fund man­ager, who served only 13 months of a po­ten­tial 18-month sen­tence in Palm Beach County and was al­lowed gen­er­ous work-re­lease priv­i­leges de­spite rules bar­ring work re­lease for sex of­fend­ers. Ep­stein’s valet would pick him up at the stock­ade and drive him to his down­town West Palm Beach of­fice, where the busi­ness­man could en­ter­tain guests.

‘COM­PLETE B.S.’

The Depart­ment of Jus­tice is re­view­ing Acosta’s han­dling of the non­pros­e­cu­tion agree­ment. A Mi­ami fed­eral judge ruled this year that Acosta’s of­fice vi­o­lated the Crime Vic­tims’ Rights Act when he agreed to keep the deal se­cret from the girls whom Ep­stein al­legedly abused.

But Acosta said Wed­nes­day that, due to pro­vi­sions for vic­tims’ resti­tu­tion in the deal, seal­ing the agree­ment was the best way to en­sure that his vic­tims wouldn’t be ac­cused of fi­nan­cial mo­ti­va­tions had Ep­stein de­cided to go to trial.

After it was signed, the agree­ment was sub­se­quently weak­ened by the Palm Beach County State At­tor­ney’s Of­fice, Acosta con­tends.

He added: “The work re­lease was com­plete B.S.”

In his state­ment after Acosta’s news con­fer­ence, Krischer de­clared: “If Mr. Acosta was truly con­cerned with the State’s case and felt he had to res­cue the mat­ter, he would have moved for­ward with the 53-page in­dict­ment that his own of­fice drafted. In­stead,

Mr. Acosta bro­kered a se­cret plea deal that re­sulted in a Non-Pros­e­cu­tion Agree­ment in vi­o­la­tion of the Crime Vic­tims’ Rights Act.”

Ep­stein, who faces up to 45 years in prison if con­victed of the newly filed charges in New York, has pleaded not guilty.

Acosta’s fate be­came one of the many con­tro­ver­sies sur­round­ing the Trump White House late last year after the Mi­ami Her­ald pub­lished a se­ries, Perver­sion of Jus­tice, de­scrib­ing the brazen­ness of Ep­stein’s be­hav­ior, in­ter­view­ing vic­tims for the first time, and fill­ing in de­tails of how the plea deal was ne­go­ti­ated in se­cret.

Back in late 2007, Acosta met pri­vately with Ep­stein at­tor­ney Jay Le­fkowitz at a West Palm Beach Mar­riott to dis­cuss Ep­stein’s non-pros­e­cu­tion agree­ment. Fol­low­ing the meet­ing, Le­fkowitz sent Acosta an email thank­ing him for “the com­mit­ment you made.”

“You ... as­sured me that your of­fice would not ... contact any of the iden­ti­fied in­di­vid­u­als, po­ten­tial wit­nesses or po­ten­tial civil claimants and the re­spec­tive coun­sel in this mat­ter,’’ Le­fkowitz wrote. The email seems to con­tra­dict Acosta’s ar­gu­ment Wed­nes­day that he kept the agree­ment quiet for the ben­e­fit of the vic­tims.

Most of Ep­stein’s ac­cusers learned about the plea ar­range­ment after he was al­ready serv­ing his short sen­tence.

‘TRAGIC’

In its in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the Mi­ami Her­ald iden­ti­fied as many as 80 al­leged vic­tims who say they were abused by Ep­stein. The U.S. At­tor­ney in New York has said there could be hun­dreds of vic­tims in New York, South Florida, and else­where.

The Her­ald’s se­ries spurred out­rage over Ep­stein’s deal, which was only lightly dis­cussed dur­ing Acosta’s con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing in 2017.

Po­laris, a Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based non­profit that op­er­ates the Na­tional Hu­man Traf­fick­ing Hotline for the United States, on Wed­nes­day called the han­dling of Ep­stein’s case “tragic.”

Most of the can­di­dates run­ning for the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion have called on Acosta to re­sign, as have Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who are Democrats. And shortly be­fore Acosta spoke to re­porters Wed­nes­day, House Over­sight Com­mit­tee Chair­man Eli­jah Cum­mings, D-Md., an­nounced that he had sent a let­ter invit­ing Acosta to tes­tify dur­ing a July 23 hear­ing delv­ing into his ac­tions on the Ep­stein case in South Florida.

U.S. Rep. Deb­bie Wasser­man Schultz, a South Florida Demo­crat who sits on the com­mit­tee, sub­se­quently is­sued a state­ment say­ing that “Sec­re­tary Acosta has a dis­turb­ing record on sex­ual and hu­man traf­fick­ing that stretches ... up to his time now as La­bor Sec­re­tary.”

Acosta’s news con­fer­ence was an un­usu­ally high-pro­file af­fair for what is oth­er­wise a low-key of­fice. Two dozen Depart­ment of La­bor staffers stood watch over a wood­pan­eled press brief­ing room in­side the agency’s head­quar­ters be­fore it be­gan in­side the Depart­ment of La­bor Build­ing.

Acosta was not only de­fend­ing his rep­u­ta­tion but also his place in Trump’s Cab­i­net. The pres­i­dent on Tues­day praised his per­for­mance on the job when asked at the White House whether he still sup­ports his la­bor sec­re­tary, but he also cau­tioned that his ad­min­is­tra­tion is looking at the Ep­stein plea deal.

Acosta said he had since spo­ken to Trump, who told him he con­tin­ues to

ACOSTA WAS NOT ONLY DE­FEND­ING HIS REP­U­TA­TION BUT ALSO HIS PLACE IN TRUMP’S CAB­I­NET.

have the pres­i­dent’s sup­port. Af­ter­ward, on Capi­tol Hill, Trump’s chief of staff, Mick Mul­vaney, told re­porters that Acosta “did ex­actly what he needed to do” dur­ing his news con­fer­ence and dis­missed re­ports that he had pushed to have Acosta ousted.

A White House official told the Her­ald that

Trump en­cour­aged Acosta to con­duct the news con­fer­ence and de­fend his record amid concerns within the ad­min­is­tra­tion over the sec­re­tary’s abil­ity to ride out the storm.

At the Depart­ment of La­bor, Acosta largely fo­cused his com­ments on the com­pli­ca­tions pre­sented by in­ter­ven­ing in a state case and on the dif­fer­ences that he said ex­ist be­tween the le­gal sys­tem a decade ago and now.

“To­day, our judges do not al­low vic­tim-sham­ing by de­fense at­tor­neys. I have viewed the vic­tim in­ter­views. They are hard to watch,” Acosta said. “I know that my former col­leagues, the men and women of my of­fice, wanted to help them. I wanted to help them. That is why we in­ter­vened.”

Acosta said he does not view Ep­stein’s vic­tims as pros­ti­tutes, de­spite the agree­ment that al­lowed the wealthy fi­nancier to plead guilty to felony state so­lic­i­ta­tion charges. But he de­clined to apol­o­gize to any of Ep­stein’s vic­tims and said it’s dif­fi­cult to go back and ques­tion whether he would have done any­thing dif­fer­ently.

He also said that his break­fast meet­ing with Le­fkowitz in Oc­to­ber

2007 was just a ca­sual get-to­gether and came after the plea deal had been ne­go­ti­ated, de­spite the sub­se­quent com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

“The goal here was straight­for­ward: Put Ep­stein be­hind bars, en­sure he reg­is­tered as a sex­ual of­fender, pro­vide vic­tims with a means to seek resti­tu­tion, and pro­tect the pub­lic by putting them on no­tice that a sex­ual preda­tor is in their midst,” he said.

In fact, Ep­stein was clas­si­fied as a sex of­fender, not a sex­ual preda­tor, which would have im­posed harsher restric­tions.

He once told the New York Post: “I am not a sex­ual preda­tor, I am an of­fender. It’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween a mur­derer and a per­son who steals a bagel.”

Mi­ami Her­ald investigat­ive re­porters Julie K. Brown and Ni­cholas Nehamas con­trib­uted to this re­port.

ALEX WONG Getty Images

Sec­re­tary of La­bor Alex Acosta speaks in Wash­ing­ton on Wed­nes­day. Acosta did not take any per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity for al­low­ing Jef­frey Ep­stein to plead guilty to lesser state pros­ti­tu­tion charges.

ALEX WONG Getty Images

Sec­re­tary of La­bor Alex Acosta said Wed­nes­day: “The Palm Beach State At­tor­ney’s Of­fice was ready to let Ep­stein walk free, no jail time, noth­ing. Pros­e­cu­tors in my Florida of­fice found this to be completely un­ac­cept­able, and they be­came in­volved.’

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