A newspaper helped victims get justice when it seemed impossible

Miami Herald screenshot

If there’s ever any question why journalism matters, look no further than the case of Palm Beach multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein. Because of dogged investigative work by the Miami Herald – and the courage of Epstein’s victims who spoke out – Epstein sits in a New York jail right now, facing charges that he sexually exploited girls and young women. In its investigation, the Miami Herald identified as many as 60 alleged victims who say they were abused by Epstein.

Even with the Miami Herald (and now major media outlets throughout the world) exposing grave problems with how Epstein’s victims were treated by the criminal justice system in 2008, we see those in power resisting an accounting of how they failed these girls. But reporters like Julie K. Brown, who spent years on the Herald series “Perversion of Justice,” are not backing down.

The Herald exposed a secret 2008 plea deal approved by Alex Acosta, then a federal prosecutor in Florida, that allowed sex offender Epstein to escape any serious punishment for crimes that would have sent most other men to prison for life.

Acosta resigned his latest job – as Trump’s U.S. Labor Secretary – on Friday amid controversy over the Epstein deal. Acosta never apologized to the victims for keeping the one-of-a-kind lenient plea deal a secret from them, and Trump is still praising Acosta even as the sex trafficking scandal unfolds and more victims come forward.

The whole episode sounds like something you could only find in a piece of fiction, but the truth is far worse than the most creative author could dream up.

Epstein, the 66-year-old hedge fund manager who counted President Donald Trump, former President Bill Clinton, Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz and many other prominent people among his friends, allegedly spent years trafficking girls and young women to provide sex acts at his homes in Palm Beach, New York, and elsewhere.

Just the description of his life is enough to send chills up the spine of any normal person.

Trump has famously described Epstein as a “terrific guy’’ and said “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.’’

Some of the victims, media accounts say, were as young as 14. After Epstein was arrested in New York this week on charges that he exploited dozens of girls under 18 between 2002 and 2005, Trump told reporters he hardly knew the offender.

“I had a falling out with him. I haven’t spoken to him in 15 years,’’ Trump said.

There was plenty of warning that Epstein was victimizing girls. In addition to the criminal charges, there have been accusations included in civil suits filed against him.

Instead of prosecuting Epstein on a long list of charges in 2008, Acosta, then the U.S. Attorney in South Florida, agreed to the secret plea bargain that allowed Epstein to spend 13 months in the Palm Beach County jail.

But Epstein was allowed to leave the jail for 12 hours every day, thus escaping the inconvenience imposed on most prisoners. As the Miami Herald reported, “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.”

Acosta engineered the non-prosecution agreement with federal authorities while allowing Epstein to plead guilty to state charges of solicitation of prostitution and solicitation of prostitution with a minor. Epstein was represented by attorney Dershowitz and former U.S. Special Counsel Ken Starr. Acosta got the great “deal’’ sealed from public view and did not comply with laws that require prosecutors to notify the victims when plea bargains are struck.

Earlier this year – after the Miami Herald interviewed dozens of victims who said they were forced to engage in “massages’’ and sexual acts and recruit other girls and young women – federal prosecutors in New York (where Epstein has a mansion) picked up the case.  Last week the story exploded nationally when Epstein was indicted and jailed. Authorities say they found a safe in his New York mansion filled with pictures of nude girls and young women.

Acosta, in a Washington, D.C. press conference he called last week to defend himself after many calls for him to resign, insisted that back in 2008, he was rescuing the case from Palm Beach State Attorney Barry Krischer because of the risk that Epstein would escape all criminal charges.  He indicated Krischer was on board with his decision to extend the deal to Epstein in 2008.

But Krischer released a written statement emphatically disagreeing with Acosta’s version of events.

Krischer said his office and Palm Beach Police took the original investigation to a Grand Jury and returned an indictment charging Epstein with felony solicitation of prostitution.  Krischer said he was not a party to secret negotiations between Acosta and Epstein’s lawyers that led to the unusual plea bargain and sentence, nor was he aware that the agreement had been hidden from the victims.

If Acosta had been truly concerned with the state’s case, and felt he had to rescue it, he could have moved forward with a 53-page indictment prosecutors had already drafted, Krischer said.  That never happened. Instead, Krischer said, Acosta “brokered a secret plea deal’’ that violated a key law that requires notice of such deals to all victims – the Crime Victims’ Rights Act.

“Mr. Acosta should not be allowed to rewrite history,’’ Krischer added.

Trump told reporters last week he feels “very badly’’ for Acosta because he “works hard and does a good job.’’

Epstein, who has pleaded not guilty, is in jail in New York City awaiting trial and facing the possibility of 45 years in prison – unless he has some more bargaining to do.

If Epstein decided to start identifying some of his prominent friends who allegedly engaged in sexual acts with girls and young women, we could be in for much more.

One key fact to remember in this case: There is no statute of limitations on sex trafficking charges involving underage victims. And that might scare a few people into cooperating.

Lucy Morgan
Pulitzer Prize-winner Lucy Morgan was chief of the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times capital bureau in Tallahassee for 20 years, retiring in 2006 and serving as senior correspondent until 2013. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate named its press gallery after Morgan, in honor of her two decades covering the Legislature.

2 COMMENTS

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here