Justice Dept.: ‘Poor judgment’ used in Epstein plea deal
By Michael Balsamo and Eric Tucker, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — A Justice Department report has found former Labor Secretary Alex Acosta exercised “poor judgment” in handling an investigation into wealthy financier Jefferey Epstein when he was a top federal prosecutor in Florida. But it also says that he did not engage in professional misconduct.
The 350-page report, obtained by The Associated Press, is a culmination of an investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility into Acosta’s handling of a secret plea deal with Epstein, who had been accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls.
Though the report faulted Acosta for his judgment, it concluded that his actions in arranging the deal did not constitute misconduct, and that none of the prosecutors involved committed misconduct in their interactions with the victims. The conclusions are likely to disappoint the victims, who have long hoped the internal investigation would hold Justice Department officials accountable for actions they say allowed Epstein to escape justice.
In a statement, Acosta expressed vindication at the report’s conclusion that he had not committed misconduct, saying it “fully debunks” allegations that he had cut a sweetheart deal for Epstein. He said the report confirmed that his decision to open an investigation into Epstein had resulted in a jail sentence and a sex offender registration for the financier.
“OPR’s report and public records document that without federal involvement, Epstein would have walked free,” Acosta said in the statement.
Under the 2008 non-prosecution agreement – also known as an NPA – Epstein pleaded guilty to state charges in Florida of soliciting and procuring a minor for prostitution. That allowed him to avert a possible life sentence, instead serving 13 months in a work-release program. He was required to make payments to victims and register as a sex offender.
Epstein was later charged by federal prosecutors in Manhattan for nearly identical allegations in 2019, but he took his own life while in federal custody as he awaited trial.
Acosta said the “Epstein affair” was vastly “more lurid and sweeping” than when he was first involved, an allusion to some of the high-profile names referenced in media reports as friends or associates of Epstein.
In a separate statement, Marie Villafana, who was the lead prosecutor in the investigation, said she was pleased that OPR had completed the report but was “disappointed that it has not released the full report so the victims and the public can have a fuller accounting of the depth of interference that led to the patently unjust outcome in the Epstein case.
“That injustice, I believe, was the result of deep, implicit institutional biases that prevented me and the FBI agents who worked diligently on this case from holding Mr. Epstein accountable for his crimes,” she said.
Brad Edwards, an attorney for several of Epstein’s victims, called the report a “disappointing sidestep of the issue. He said the Justice Department “appears to have backed in to a desired result that is difficult to reconcile with the facts.”
“We are left still wondering why Jeffrey Epstein got the sweetheart deal he did and who exactly made the decision to transform a lengthy sex trafficking indictment into a non-prosecution agreement,” Edwards said.
The OPR investigation centered on two aspects of the Epstein case — whether prosecutors committed misconduct by resolving the allegations through a non-prosecution agreement, and also whether they mishandled interactions with victims in the case.
The report concludes that prosecutors did not commit misconduct in their interactions with the victims because there was no “clear and unambiguous duty” to consult with them before entering into the non-prosecution agreement. But it says the lack of consultation reflected poorly on the Justice Department and “is contradictory to the Department’s mission to minimize the frustration and confusion that victims of a crime endure.”
The Justice Department’s internal probe also concluded that Acosta’s “decision to resolve the federal investigation through the NPA constitutes poor judgment.” Investigators found that although it was within his broad discretion and did not result from “improper factors,” the agreement was nonetheless “a flawed mechanism for satisfying the federal interest that caused the government to open its investigation of Epstein.”
The investigation included more than 60 interviews with 60 witnesses and a review of hundreds of thousands of Justice Department records. OPR officials identified as subjects of their probe Acosta, three former supervisors in his prosecuting office as well as an assistant United States attorney involved in the Epstein case.
The report drew immediate condemnation from Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, who has questioned Justice Department officials about the plea deal repeatedly.
“Letting a well-connected billionaire get away with child rape and international sex trafficking isn’t ‘poor judgment’ – it is a disgusting failure. Americans ought to be enraged,” Sasse said. “Jeffrey Epstein should be rotting behind bars today, but the Justice Department failed Epstein’s victims at every turn.”
The report concluded that Acosta had the authority as U.S. attorney “to resolve the case as he deemed necessary and appropriate, as long as his decision was not motivated or influenced by improper factors.” The office said its investigation had turned up no evidence that Acosta was swayed by “impermissible considerations, such as Epstein’s wealth, status, or associations” and in fact had resisted efforts by defense lawyers to return the case to the state for whatever outcome the state wanted.
The report also did not find that a well-publicized 2007 breakfast meeting with one of Epstein’s attorneys led to the non-prosecution agreement — which had been signed weeks earlier — “or to any other significant decision that benefited Epstein.” Records reviewed by the office show that prosecutors weighed concerns about witness credibility and the impact of a trial on victims, as well as Acosta’s concerns about the Justice Department’s proper role in prosecuting solicitation crimes.
“Accordingly,” the report said, “OPR does not find that Acosta engaged in professional misconduct by resolving the federal investigation of Epstein in the way he did or that the other subjects committed professional misconduct through their implementation of Acosta’s decisions.”
Associated Press writer Jim Mustian in New York contributed to this report.
©The Associated Press 2020