Written by Frances Robles, Glenn Thrush and Linda Qiu
At a news conference in Washington, Alex Acosta, the labor secretary and a former US attorney in Florida, on Wednesday gave his account of how federal prosecutors dealt with allegations that Jeffrey Epstein had abused young women and girls, a case first handled by state prosecutors. Here’s how his version of events stacks up against what we know.
The role of state vs. federal prosecutors
What Acosta Said: “Simply put, the Palm Beach state attorney’s office was ready to let Epstein walk free, no jail time, nothing.”
Prosecutors who worked with Acosta said that the federal case presented them with legal challenges that made the matter more suited to a state court. Federal laws, they said, would have required the US attorney’s office to prove that Epstein, a financier, crossed state lines with the intent to commit the acts.
Nonetheless, federal prosecutors had legal firepower and resources not available to a local prosecutor. That was especially important for a case that presented such complex legal and logistical challenges, involved a large number of victims — up to 40 at the time of the deal — and the prospect of facing the best defense lawyers and private investigators Epstein’s money could buy. Local law enforcement officials and the FBI referred the case to Acosta, in part because they feared Epstein would face no more than a single state charge related to prostitution, which warranted a fine and no jail time.
Investigators involved in the case were hoping Acosta could pursue a case that would impose a more substantial penalty on Epstein. The outcome negotiated by Acosta’s office was a plea deal with state prosecutors on two prostitution charges that led Epstein to serve 13 months in the Palm Beach County jail and be registered as a sex offender. During his sentence, he was permitted to participate in a work-release program that allowed him to go to his office six days a week for 12 hours a day.
Barry Krischer, the former top prosecutor for Palm Beach County, said Wednesday that Acosta was trying to “rewrite history” by suggesting that state prosecutors were to blame for the leniency toward Epstein.
“I can emphatically state that Mr Acosta’s recollection of this matter is completely wrong,” Krischer said in a statement. “Federal prosecutors do not take a back seat to state prosecutors. That’s not how the system works in the real world.”
If Acosta believed the state deal was so terrible, he should have filed a federal indictment instead of conducting “secret negotiations,” Krischer said.
Were victims afraid to come forward?
What Acosta Said: “She talks about the challenges faced, she talks about the victims being scared and traumatized, refusing to testify, and how some victims actually exonerated Epstein. Most had significant concerns about their identities being revealed. The acts that they had faced were horrible and they didn’t want people to know about them.”
Acosta was referring to a federal prosecutor on his staff and the possibility that victims might not be willing to testify against Epstein. Adam Horowitz, a lawyer who represented some of the victims, said that Acosta’s arguments at the news conference were disingenuous.
He said that the young women were scared to testify, but that it was because the prosecutors had terrified them.
“The prosecutors were saying, ‘These defense lawyers are going to go through your whole personal life, dig up your bad acts and your sex life. When they heard that from prosecutors, sure, they were intimidated,” Horowitz said. “They kept saying, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ ”
Eventually, after years and under different circumstances, many of the victims did talk — to a Miami Herald reporter — telling the paper that they were dissatisfied with the efforts of Acosta’s office.
In a pool of victims so large, it is inevitable that some of them will resist going through to trial, said Spencer Kuvin, a lawyer for three of the victims. But two of his three clients gave depositions and were “willing and ready” to testify, he said.
Was it the best deal possible?
What Acosta Said: “We believe that we proceeded appropriately, that based on the evidence and not just my opinion but I have shared the affidavit. Based on the evidence, there was value to getting a guilty plea and having him register.”
It is impossible to know how members of a jury might have responded to the evidence if it had been presented to them in a federal trial — or whether efforts by Epstein’s team to pressure the victims or intimidate prosecutors would have worked. But Acosta’s decision to accept a plea deal was widely — but not universally — supported by his own team at the time.
A. Marie Villafaña, the lead prosecutor in the case and one of the few women in Acosta’s leadership team, pushed him to bring charges even if it risked losing in court. She was eventually overruled, and helped Acosta work out the logistics of the plea deal.
Notifying the victims
What Acosta Said: “When it was finally clear that Epstein would comply with the agreement, she talks about how she made efforts to notify the victims, how that was a Friday afternoon at 4:15 and that she learned that the state had scheduled the plea for 8:30 the following Monday. And she talks about how over the weekend, she made every effort to notify the victims at that time.”
Acosta was referring to efforts by Villafaña to reach the victims. His office began directly negotiating a plea agreement with Epstein’s lawyers in August 2007, according to The Miami Herald. They reached an agreement on Sept. 24 of that year, but talks continued until June 2008, when Epstein pleaded guilty in court.
From the time the FBI began investigating Epstein in 2006 to Sept. 24, 2007, Acosta’s office “never conferred with the victims” or informed them that such an agreement was under consideration, a 2019 federal court ruling shows. The ruling notes that Epstein’s lawyers sought assurances that the victims would be kept in the dark.
Acosta cited an affidavit from Villafaña, who stated that she did not notify victims because she was worried about negotiations over a provision that would allow the victims to obtain monetary damages. She said she was concerned that Epstein’s lawyers would undermine the credibility of the victims if negotiations fell through and the case went to trial.
Even after the agreement was reached with Epstein, the prosecutors kept the details from victims.
The victims received letters from the FBI in January 2008 informing them that the case was still under investigation, but not disclosing the agreement. Six months later, a lawyer for the victims, Bradley Edwards, met with a prosecutor to discuss the case — again, the agreement was left unmentioned.
On June 27, 2008, Edwards was informed that Epstein would plead guilty in court, but was not told that the state plea would be the resolution to the federal case. Horowitz said nobody reached out to any of his seven clients before Epstein pleaded guilty on June 30, 2008.
A breakfast meeting with Epstein’s lawyer
What Acosta Said: “The meeting that was alleged was a breakfast meeting that took place after the agreement was negotiated, not before. The agreement was signed in September.”
Acosta is correct that the meeting he had with Jay Lefkowitz, one of Epstein’s lawyers, took place about two weeks after the plea agreement was reached in September 2007. It is less clear what they discussed.
In a letter to Acosta, Lefkowitz noted the meeting took place on Oct. 12, 2007, and thanked Acosta for his “commitment” to not contact any victims or witnesses.
After the meeting, Epstein’s lawyers continued to negotiate an addendum and objected repeatedly to notifying the victims.