Labor Secretary Alex Acosta insisted this week that he and the prosecutors under him did the best they could to serve the people who were sexually abused by billionaire Jeffrey Epstein as children. But his defense ignores both the reality of what today’s sexual assault victims face and the results of sex trafficking prosecution at the time.
In a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Acosta responded to calls for his resignation in the aftermath of Epstein’s arrest. Acosta served as the top federal prosecutor in Miami in 2008 and oversaw a sweetheart deal given to Epstein, who at the time was facing possible federal indictment for sexually assaulting dozens of girls. Epstein’s victims were not told about the plea deal, which allowed him to plead guilty to a lesser charge and serve 13 months in jail.
Acosta maintained the deal was the best option due to a radically different environment for sexual assault survivors in the 2008 justice system. There was a lot of victim shaming then, he said, and he didn’t believe the victims should go through it.
He refused several opportunities to apologize to the victims directly. To top it off, Acosta also encouraged sexual assault victims to come forward — and seemed to blame the victims themselves for not speaking out.
Implicit in Acosta’s argument are two things. First, Acosta believes that despite the dozens of victims involved in the case, there simply wasn’t enough evidence for prosecutors to be certain that Epstein would end up a registered sex offender and serve time behind bars without the deal.
Second, Acosta doesn’t seem to understand that it was possible for prosecutors to fight harder for Epstein’s victims, and that reluctance is exactly why victims hesitate to come forward.
Epstein now faces new federal charges for the alleged sex trafficking of children in New York and Florida between 2002 and 2005, which together carry a 45-year maximum sentence.
In 2008, the plea deal allowed Epstein to avoid federal prosecution for an international operation in which he abused children. He instead pleaded guilty in state court to two prostitution charges, which ultimately resulted in him serving only 13 months in Palm Beach County Jail, much of it on work release. In addition, the deal gave immunity to “any potential co-conspirators’’ involved in his crimes. In February, a federal judge ruled that federal prosecutors broke the law under Acosta, when they hid the agreement from survivors of Epstein’s sexual abuse, and criticized prosecutors for allowing the survivors to believe the FBI’s case against Epstein was ongoing.
When asked about how his insistence that his office did nothing wrong squares with a federal judge deciding to rule that he broke the law, Acosta said Wednesday, “I understand the judge had a different view.”
There were 36 victims at the time the deal was made. And it’s possible that if victims were scared to testify at the time, Acosta’s prosecutors had a role in it, claimed Adam Horowitz, a lawyer who represented some of the victims. Horowitz alleged that victims were often reminded of how much the defense’s lawyers would dredge up details of their personal lives and asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?’”
Julie K. Brown, the Miami Herald reporter who broke the story on the plea deal last year, said on CNN on Wednesday, “He had 36 girls who all told the same story, which is amazing. I talked to only a handful of them and they all said what the MO [modus operandi] was.”
When asked Wednesday whether he believed there was sufficient evidence to go to trial and if so, why they had not moved ahead with more serious charges, Acosta said, “There is a big gulf between sufficient evidence to go to trial and sufficient evidence to be confident in the outcome of that trial.”
Victims told the Herald they were not notified about the plea deal, and if they had been, they would have protested it in court. Acosta, however, defended not telling them, because monetary restitution was involved and prosecutors allegedly believed Epstein would use that to discredit victims. Acosta said this would have allowed Epstein “to make the argument at trial that their testimony was compromised.”
He repeatedly referred to a different environment for victims of sexual violence in 2008.
“One of the tough questions in these cases is what is the value of an ensured guilty plea with registration versus rolling the dice. And I know in 2019, looking back on 2008, things may look different but this was the judgment of prosecutors with dozens of years of experience,” he said.
Acosta’s own defense of his actions should be proof that not enough has changed.
Acosta repeatedly shifted blame for the plea deal onto others. He blamed state authorities for Epstein being allowed to go on work release, in which Epstein could go to his office six days a week for 12 hours a day.
Barry Krischer, a former top prosecutor for Palm Beach County, told media in a statement, “I can emphatically state that Mr. Acosta’s recollection of this matter is completely wrong … Federal prosecutors do not take a back seat to state prosecutors. That’s not how the system works in the real world.”
Acosta also appeared to blame the victims for not coming forward earlier, claiming if they had, things might have been different.
“And as a message to the victims, the message is that you need to come forward,” Acosta said. “I heard this morning that another victim came forward and made horrendous, horrendous allegations, allegations that should never happen to any woman much less a young girl. And as victims come forward these cases can be brought. They can be brought by the federal government, they can be brought by state attorneys, and they will be brought.”
Asking victims to come forward — while defending a plea deal he didn’t tell victims about — simply doesn’t make sense.
Dozens of victims spoke up in that case, and their assailant not only never received prison time, but he ended up serving only 13 months in jail.
Although he had to register as a sex offender, it’s clear Epstein himself didn’t take what happened very seriously. He told The New York Post in 2011, “I’m not a sexual predator, I’m an ‘offender.’ It’s the difference between a murderer and a person who steals a bagel.”
Acosta’s claims that prosecutors couldn’t have gone further a decade ago don’t really hold water either.
As CNN’s Kara Scannell has pointed out, Acosta’s office treated other sex trafficking cases differently in 2007. His office prosecuted a Florida resident, Demond Lavail Osley, with sex trafficking of a minor and Osley received 30 years in prison. In 2007, two men were also charged with two counts of sex trafficking of a minor and went to prison instead of jail with work release. None of the cases featured dozens of child victims like the Epstein case.
But Acosta’s own blaming of victims show how he is overestimating how much things have changed.
Acosta also claimed, “Today our judges do not allow victim shaming by defense attorneys.”
Way back in the distant past of last year, in a criminal case involving Yale University, lawyers repeatedly shamed a student who said she was a victim of sexual assault. They asked her whether she had flirted with the alleged assailant, how much she had to drink, and why she decided to wear a black cat costume that night instead of “Cinderella in a long flowing gown.”
Norm Pattis, the accused student’s attorney said at the time, “If you flirt with somebody, you have a little bit too much to drink, you invite him back to your room, and you’re wearing provocative clothing, don’t be surprised if the individual looking at you is going to be provoked. People need to take responsibility for the signals they send. All this outrage about the questions I asked is really ridiculous. You don’t get a free pass just because you claim to be a victim.”
Also in 2018, a judge said that a teenage boy accused of rape deserved leniency due to his “good family” and extracurricular activities. The judge endorsed a series of rape myths at the time and said rape usually occurs in a “shed” or “shack” and by one or more assailants.
Acosta’s remarks looked particularly out of touch as he spoke at length about what he called his good relationship with President Donald Trump. Acosta described the president as “kind” and said he “showed great support.”
How can victims feel comfortable coming forward when they are reminded that the president of the United States has been accused of sexual misconduct or sexual assault by at least 22 women? Only a few weeks ago, writer E. Jean Carroll said Trump sexually assaulted her in the 1990s, and the president responded by denigrating her appearance and claiming to have never met her — despite evidence to the contrary. Trump himself has associated with Epstein, as have other very powerful men.
Even when victims demand other avenues to justice than through jail or prison time, powerful men evade consequences. Last year, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford alleged then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh attempted to rape her when they were teenagers. Despite her very powerful testimony before lawmakers, he was still confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Acosta can tell victims to come forward, but unless they see evidence that they will be believed and that people in power will fight for them, his message will not carry any weight.