February 22, 2019
(CNN) — A federal judge in Florida ruled that the Department of Justice broke the law by failing to confer with victims of Jeffrey Epstein, a well-connected Palm Beach billionaire and alleged serial sex abuser of underage girls, about the 2008 plea deal that garnered him only 13 months in prison and no federal trial.
Judge Kenneth Mara issued the ruling Thursday as part of a years-long lawsuit brought by victims of Epstein identified only as Jane Does. However, the ruling does not address what remedy, if any, the plaintiffs are entitled to going forward nor the legality of the plea deal itself.
In November, the Miami Herald reported that when Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta was a US attorney in Florida, he gave Epstein the “deal of a lifetime.” In a sweeping review of the politically connected billionaire’s case, the Herald explained how Acosta had made an agreement with Epstein to avoid major repercussions for the hedge fund manager, even though a federal investigation had identified 36 underage victims.
The report said Acosta had brokered a deal with one of Epstein’s attorneys where he pleaded to two state prostitution charges, ultimately serving only 13 months and avoiding a federal trial. He also registered as a sex offender and paid restitution to the victims identified by the FBI.
The agreement, the Herald said, “essentially shut down an ongoing FBI probe” and further granted immunity to “any potential co-conspirators” in the case.
Earlier this month, Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican who’s a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he had received a letter from the Justice Department informing him that its Office of Professional Responsibility had “opened an investigation into allegations that Department attorneys may have committed professional misconduct” in their handling of a 2008 plea deal reached between Acosta, then the US attorney in Miami, and Epstein.
In a statement Thursday, Sasse called for the Justice Department to re-examine Epstein’s deal.
“I’m relieved that the court agrees that it was wrong to hide this child rapist’s pathetically soft deal from his victims, in violation of federal law,” Sasse wrote. “The fact that it’s taken this long to get this far is heartbreaking and infuriating. The Department of Justice should use this opportunity to reopen its non-prosecution agreement so that Epstein and anyone else who abused these children are held accountable.”
The Department of Labor cited the Justice Department’s long-standing defense of Acosta’s actions in a statement Thursday.
“For more than a decade, the actions of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida in this case have been defended by the Department of Justice in litigation across three administrations and several attorneys general,” a Labor spokesperson wrote in a statement. “The office’s decisions were approved by departmental leadership and followed departmental procedures.”
Acosta told CNN earlier this month that he “welcomes” the Office of Professional Responsibility’s probe into his handling of Epstein’s plea agreement.
“I welcome OPR’s review of this,” Acosta said, noting that it’s not the first time the decision has been examined. “I will cooperate fully,” he added.
Acosta also denied any wrongdoing.
“Absolutely not,” he said when asked if there had been any wrongdoing on his part. “This is a matter that has been reviewed by Department of Justice leadership. This is a matter that has been defended by the Department of Justice over the intervening 12 years across five attorneys general and multiple administrations.”
In December, Epstein settled a separate lawsuit that could have allowed for several of his accusers to tell their stories in open court.
By Ross Levitt, Elizabeth Hartfield and Caroline Kelly, CNN
CNN’s Elizabeth Hartfield and Nick Valencia contributed to this report.