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Justice Department: Ex-top prosecutor exercised "poor judgment" in Epstein plea deal

An investigation by the Justice Department's internal disciplinary office concluded that President Trump's former Labor Secretary Alex Acosta did not commit "professional misconduct," but did exercise "poor judgment" while serving as a top federal prosecutor in charge of overseeing the 2008 sexual abuse investigation of Jeffrey Epstein

The Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) reviewed a 2008 decision by Acosta, then serving as U.S. Attorney in Miami, to strike up a plea deal with Epstein which allowed him to avoid federal charges with a possible life sentence. 

Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, chair of the Senate Judiciary's subcommittee on oversight, sent a letter in December 2018 to OPR asking that they look into the plea deal, after a bombshell report by the Miami Herald stirred public outrage. 

Instead, the wealthy investment manager pleaded guilty to lesser state charges of soliciting and procuring a person under age 18 for prostitution, and was sentenced to 18 months in jail, but ended up serving less than 13 months due to good time. The deal also required he reach financial settlements with dozens of his once-teenage victims and register as a sex offender.

However, that deal was never disclosed to Epstein's victims. The report says this "reflected poorly on the Department as a whole, and is contradictory to the Department's mission to minimize the frustration and confusion that victims of a crime endure." While it was not a requirement for the attorney's to inform those women under the Crime Victims' Rights Act (CVRA), the move was widely criticized as a means to silence them, however the office said they found no evidence of that. 

A summary of the report's findings was first briefed to victims and their attorneys Thursday by the Justice Department. Although they concluded that Epstein's victims "were not treated with the forthrightness and sensitivity expected by the Department," they ultimately did not find that Acosta's, "decision was based on corruption or other impermissible considerations, such as Epstein's wealth, status, or associations." 

Epstein was indicted 11 years later by federal prosecutors in Manhattan, and was arrested last summer on sex trafficking charges, alleging he abused dozens of underage girls as young as 14. In August 2019, Epstein was found hanging in his jail cell, New York City's chief medical examiner ruled it a suicide. 

"Of course, had Secretary Acosta known then what he knows now, he certainly would have directed a different path," said Acosta's attorney, Gordon Todd, in a statement. "But as OPR makes clear, neither he nor his staff had the benefit of the record available today to craft their strategy to handle a legally and factually challenging case."

In response to mounting questions about his handling of Epstein's case, Acosta resigned from his position as Mr. Trump's Labor Secretary in July 2019. 

The investigation by the OPR focused on events that occurred over a decade ago, but investigators interviewed over 60 witnesses and say they combed through hundreds of thousands of records pertaining to the widely criticized deal. 

The report also did not find any wrongdoing by the other four prosecutors assigned to the case under Acosta. 

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney and lead prosecutor on Epstein's case, Marie Villafaña, called the outcome of the Epstein case "patently unjust," and expressed disappointment that the full report and its findings were not released by the Justice Department.  

"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," Villafaña said in a statement. "By not considering those implicit biases based on gender and socioeconomic status, OPR lost an opportunity to make recommendations for institutional changes that could prevent results like this one from occurring in the future."

In July, Epstein's confidante, Ghislaine Maxwell, was indicted on charges for allegedly assisting and facilitating his abuse of minors. She remains in jail in Brooklyn pending trial. 

Sarah Barth contributed to reporting. 

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