Labor Secretary R. Alexander Acosta announced Friday that he was stepping down from the Trump administration in the wake of accusations that, as a federal prosecutor years ago, he mishandled the case of Jeffrey Epstein, the wealthy and politically connected financier who was accused of sexually exploiting and abusing dozens of underage girls at his pink waterfront mansion in Palm Beach, Fla. Back in 2008, Acosta was the U.S. attorney in Miami who oversaw the plea deal that allowed Epstein to avoid trial and serve very little jail time despite truly heinous, stomach-turning sex trafficking allegations.
Just two days before resigning, Acosta defended the deal as the best he could manage under the circumstances. There was a value, he said, to securing a guilty plea and forcing Epstein to register as a sex offender, even if it meant agreeing to a light sentence. And in his defense, it’s is difficult to second-guess prosecutorial decisions made a decade earlier, especially in complex sex trafficking cases that can be difficult to prove to a jury.
But federal prosecutors in New York seem to be doing just that. On Monday, they indicted Epstein on sex trafficking charges stemming from alleged incidents in Florida and New York during the same period covered by the deal negotiated by Acosta.
Something certainly went wrong in Florida. Epstein was allowed to plead in 2008 to two counts of soliciting prostitution and he served just 13 months in a private wing of county jail that he was allowed to leave six days of each week. Yes, he was required to register as a sex offender, but immunity was granted to Epstein’s unnamed co-conspirators. And the details of the settlement were deliberately withheld from victims until after it was a done deal. There were literally dozens of victims, all telling similar stories of alleged mistreatment at Epstein’s hands.
It’s easy to forget how just a few short years ago our system routinely protected powerful men from allegations of sexual misconduct.
Frankly, this wasn’t the failure of one prosecutor alone, but of the entire system of criminal justice that has too often been rigged to protect the rich and famous from criminal prosecution. In this case, it failed the dozens of teenage girls, some as young as 13, who say they were sexually used by Epstein over the course of many years, just as it has failed women preyed on by other powerful men for many years.
More recently, the #MeToo movement has ushered in a major cultural shift, helping redefine the playbook for how sexual misconduct is viewed and treated. And it’s healthy that as part of it, we reevaluate how such allegations of abuse have been handled. But, boy, if we start assigning blame based on today’s standards for what went on in the Epstein case, there’ll be plenty of people called to account. Should Manhattan Dist. Atty. Cyrus Vance Jr. be chastised as well? In 2011, his office tried to get a judge to reduce Epstein’s sexual predator status. Should some ire be thrown toward Graydon Carter, the former Vanity Fair editor? Writer Vicky Ward says that 15 years ago Carter refused to include run in a profile of Epstein the allegations of women who said they were abused. Should Epstein’s onetime buddy Donald Trump come in for some blame too? In 2002, he noted that Epstein “likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.” Just what did he know?
And why didn’t prosecutors — including local Miami authorities — work harder to build a strong case? Why was the Miami Herald able to get the goods a decade later, putting together a case so persuasive that it apparently goaded prosecutors back into action?
No doubt Epstein’s enormous wealth and his fabulous connections with people such as Trump, Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew influenced his case. It’s easy to forget how just a few short years ago our system routinely protected powerful men from allegations of sexual misconduct. These were, and still are to a degree, difficult cases to investigate and prosecute, in part because victims feared that they would be attacked and impugned on the stand by the army of high-powered lawyers hired by the wealthy accused. Shamefully, that is exactly what happened to the women who, as girls, accused Epstein a decade ago.
Thanks in large part to investigation by the Miami Herald several months ago — and perhaps to new attitudes toward sex crimes — the case has been reexamined and revived, and once again Epstein faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison. This time, it’s unlikely that prosecutors will offer him a sweet deal.
8:25 a.m.: This editorial was updated with the news about Acosta’s resignation.