Will Trump official pay a price for the lenient plea deal in horrific Palm Beach millionaire sex crimes case?

By: - April 1, 2019 7:00 am

Miami Herald screenshot

WASHINGTON — Florida Republicans are lying low on the contentious subject of U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, who is under federal investigation for allegedly mishandling a sexual abuse and trafficking case while serving as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida in 2008.

None of the sixteen Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation — including its two GOP senators — are joining their Democratic colleagues in openly calling for his resignation.

“We’ll wait for the investigation to be finalized,” U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio told the Florida Phoenix in a brief interview near his Senate office.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Tarpon Springs went further, telling the Phoenix he does not support Acosta’s resignation at this point. “You gotta give him the benefit of the doubt,” he told the Phoenix.

A spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, whose district lies north of Orlando and south of Ocala, said he supports “a thorough investigation” into the matter — a stance also taken by Sens. Rubio and Rick Scott and Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami-Dade, according to the Miami Herald.

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, who represents the Panhandle, told the Herald that reexamining Acosta’s handling of Epstein’s case sets a “dangerous” precedent because it involves second-guessing prosecutors’ analysis of the situation at the time.

A Department of Labor spokesperson said Acosta “is not resigning” over professional misconduct charges in a case involving Palm Beach billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, a sexual predator who raped and abused dozens of underage girls in the early 2000s.

But Craig Holman, a lobbyist at Public Citizen, a government watchdog group, predicts Acosta will join the dozens of other Trump administration officials who have left under clouds of controversy. “This is a cabinet official who really is not going to do much good to the Trump administration,” he said.

Last month, White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders called the case “complicated” and said administration officials are “looking into” it — a remark Holman said “spells trouble” for Acosta because the administration “does not seem to be defending him.”

At issue is a deal in which Acosta and others agreed not to prosecute Epstein, 66, in exchange for guilty pleas to two counts of prostitution and registration as a sex offender.

The deal — exposed in a series of devastating articles in the Herald — allowed Epstein, a well-connected financier, to avoid a sentence of up to life in prison. Instead, he served 13 months in a Palm Beach county jail, where he was allowed to come and go and conduct his business, according to the Herald. He was released in 2009.

Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Marra ruled that the deal violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act because victims were not notified ahead of time, depriving them of their right to discuss — and possibly derail it. The deal is now under investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR).

‘An outstanding choice’

A longtime supporter of Acosta, Rubio urged his Senate colleagues to vote for Acosta’s nomination in 2017. “I know this nominee well,” Rubio said at the time. “As a fellow Floridian and a native of Miami, I’ve been familiar with his work for many years. As I said when the president nominated him, I think he is an outstanding choice to lead the Department of Labor.”

Rubio told the Phoenix that he would weigh in on calls for Acosta’s resignation after the federal investigation concludes. “It shouldn’t take very long,” he said.

The DOJ investigation could expand beyond the OPR — and potentially take longer to resolve — if DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz conducts a separate investigation.

Critics say the OPR probe is tainted because it is being carried out by internal lawyers and that Horowitz would conduct a fairer and more independent investigation. But Horowitz can’t act without congressional approval. Legislation granting him that authority cleared the House in January and is pending in the Senate, where it has support from Rubio.

Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-23rd District) is pressing the Senate to take up the legislation. “This bill would foster greater transparency and accountability in our judicial system to prevent the type of subversion of justice Acosta facilitated,” she said in a statement.

Even so, she and other Florida Democrats want Acosta to resign immediately and are demanding “full accountability and transparency” in matters relating to the case. They sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr calling on the DOJ to reopen its agreement with Epstein and make public documents relating to it, including Acosta’s role in the plea deal and the ongoing OPR investigation.

“Mr. Epstein was accused of sexually abusing more than 80 girls,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement. “Yet Mr. Acosta approved a non-prosecution agreement that effectively shut down an investigation into whether or not there were more victims and granted immunity to Epstein’s co-conspirators.”

According to the Washington Post, Epstein “appears to travel frequently between his homes and to other locations. A plane-tracking database shows his Gulfstream jet in five states; the Virgin Islands; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Paris between August 2018 and January 2019, though The Post could not confirm his presence on the flights.”


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Allison Stevens
Allison Stevens

Allison Stevens is a freelance writer for the States Newsroom's Washington, D.C. bureau.