Weeks after an explosive news report revealed U.S. Labor Secretary Alex Acosta arranged a lenient plea deal for a Palm Beach County millionaire accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls, a Florida lawmaker is renewing her call on Capitol Hill for a federal probe into Acosta’s actions.
So far, the Justice Department hasn’t responded to the requests from U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other Florida lawmakers for an investigation of Acosta’s handling of the Jeffrey Epstein case.
“The American people and the victims of these horrific crimes deserve to know why justice was not served in this disturbing case,” Wasserman Schultz said Tuesday on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Acosta was serving as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida in 2007 when Epstein, a powerful and well-connected hedge fund manager, was indicted for recruiting and having sex with large numbers of teenage girls.
Epstein was potentially facing life in prison, but Acosta cut a deal that allowed Epstein to plead guilty to two counts of prostitution. The “non-prosecution agreement” basically squashed the FBI’s search for additional victims in the case and likewise stopped further investigation into possible additional participants in Epstein’s sex crimes, according to a report by the Miami Herald.
Acosta has not publicly commented on that report, but during his Senate confirmation hearing in 2017, he defended his handling of the case, noting that Epstein was jailed and became a registered sex offender.
One of Florida’s leading child advocates told the Florida Phoenix this week that Acosta should issue a public apology for not serving the best interests of Epstein’s victims.
“If he doesn’t issue an apology and recognize his errors, he shouldn’t be pushed out of office by investigation, he should resign. … He shouldn’t have to be pressured. He should simply leave the office,” said Roy Miller, founder and president of The Children’s Campaign, an independent, non-partisan child advocacy group in Tallahassee that fights against sex trafficking.
Fifteen Democratic House members and Republican U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska have called on the Justice Department to investigate Acosta’s role in the lenient plea deal and whether there was any misconduct.
On Tuesday, Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, urged the House of Representatives to pass H.R. 202, “The Inspector General Access Act of 2019,” which would repeal a provision that now bars the Justice Department inspector general’s office from investigating allegations of misconduct against DOJ attorneys.
Under the current policy, the IG’s office must refer the allegations to the DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which then decides whether to investigate.
Critics of the current policy say the IG’s office is better suited to investigate than DOJ attorneys because, unlike OPR, the IG’s office has statutory independence from the department it oversees. That can reduce the possibility of conflicts of interest, which could lead to a biased probe, according to a 2018 report by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Wasserman Schultz said Tuesday that “the lack of transparency still cloaking” the case is “deeply disturbing.” She added, “Giving the DOJ’s inspector general more explicit and independent power to pull back the cloak of secrecy on Acosta’s sweetheart deal goes to the heart of transparency and accountability that this office stands for.”
Investigative reports by the inspector general’s office are also posted on a public website, while DOJ’s OPR website only publishes summaries of a sample of cases they’ve investigated. Other summaries are published in an annual report.
This can make it “difficult to assess (OPR’s) findings and conclusions,” according to the oversight committee report.
Due to an unusual legal carve-out, the Justice Department IG is believed to be the only “federal agency that has no explicit power to review the conduct of its own attorneys,” Wasserman Schultz told the chamber.
It’s unclear where the request for an IG investigation stands because of the government shutdown. The DOJ did not respond to a request for comment. U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse has asked the department’s IG office and the Office of Professional Responsibility to investigate.
Per his plea deal, Epstein served only 13 months in a private wing of the county jail where he could be released to work in his downtown office for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week.
Acosta also agreed to keep the entire plea deal a secret, which denied Epstein’s victims the chance to attend his sentencing hearing, where they could have voiced their opinion about his plea deal.
The agreement provided immunity from federal prosecution for Epstein and four of his named accomplices. The deal also provided immunity to any unnamed “potential co-conspirators,” who took part in Epstein’s crimes.
A friend and confidante of the rich and powerful, Epstein was known to socialize with Donald Trump, former President Bill Clinton and other prominent figures.
Because “potential co-conspirators” weren’t named in the plea agreement, it’s unknown whether any famous or prominent individuals took part in Epstein’s crimes.
Miller said it appears that Acosta was more concerned with protecting Epstein than his victims.
“I’m sure he’s had tons of cases as a federal prosecutor. Nobody’s perfect. But he should acknowledge his mistakes, he should apologize to victims, he should ask for their understanding and forgiveness. And if he’s incapable of doing any and all of that, there’s no place for him as a public servant,” Miller said.
Nationally, Florida is a hotspot for child sex trafficking, according to a report released in 2018 by the Human Trafficking Institute.
In 2017, Florida’s southern, middle and northern federal court districts each ranked in the top 10 nationally for the number of criminal defendants in active child-only sex trafficking cases, the report found.
Seventeen suspects faced federal child sex charges in the Miami area in 2017, while 16 others were charged in both the Tampa and Tallahassee areas, the report said.