By Los Angeles Times
Did R. Alexander Acosta mishandle the case a decade ago 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, Florida? Well, either he did or someone did, it seems — because Epstein was arrested last week on very similar charges. Acosta will depart as President Donald Trump’s secretary of Labor this week after announcing his resignation Friday, but back in 2008 he 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.
On Wednesday, 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 something certainly went wrong. 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.
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.
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?
No doubt Epstein’s enormous wealth and his fabulous connections with powerful people 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.