It helps to know people in high places, especially if you’re a sex offender and your name is Jeffrey Epstein.
Some might say that Epstein, the multimillionaire financier, reached the summits of wealth and self-indulgence by his own volition. He is undeniably intelligent, a whiz kid at math and science in his early years who built his fortune in part by running a money management firm that catered to the mega-rich. He’s also a philanthropist who specializes in collecting brilliant minds.
His ascent from the middle class in which he was raised to his place among the wealthiest of the wealthy has allowed him to surround himself with the highest and the mightiest, including two presidents, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Although Trump now denies a relationship with Epstein, in 2002 he told New York magazine a different tale:
“I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”
Facing a federal indictment in 2007 for sex crimes that could have put him in prison for life, Epstein instead got off easy. His legal team, which included high-priced attorneys Alan Dershowitz and Kenneth Starr, secured a sweetheart, non-prosecution deal for Epstein that allowed him to plead guilty to lesser state charges. Epstein’s lawyers received no small amount of cooperation from Alexander Acosta, then U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida and now the U.S. secretary of labor. Thanks to these two sharp legal minds and one dull puppet, Epstein ultimately served just 13 months in county jail and was allowed to spend up to 12 hours a day on “work release,” six days a week. He also had to pay restitution to some of the victims and register as a sex offender.
This was in spite of a 53-page federal indictment prepared by the FBI that identified 36 potential victims, some as young as middle-school aged.
There’s little question that Acosta was out-lawyered, but perhaps he was also disarmed by the attentions of these celebrity attorneys. Dershowitz, then a Harvard law professor, had famously defended O.J. Simpson. Starr, of course, was the independent counsel who investigated the Clinton Whitewater case, leading into the Monica Lewinsky cliffhanger.
In a 2011 letter trying to defend himself after the cushy plea deal, Acosta wrote that he faced “a year-long assault on the prosecution and the prosecutors” by “an army of legal superstars.” He also asserted that defense lawyers “investigated individual prosecutors and their families, looking for personal peccadilloes that may provide a basis for disqualification.”
Go on, grab a hanky. Acosta also has said he feared the young accusers might not be their own best witnesses. Perhaps not. Then again, seeing girls interrogated and cross-examined by high-profile lawyers might have worked in their favor. Instead, the alleged victims were kept in the dark about the non-prosecution agreement and the records were sealed, in contravention of the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act.
Justice is sometimes slow, but she appears to be catching up with Epstein.
On Monday, a new 14-page federal indictment was unsealed in New York accusing Epstein of sex trafficking and abuse of underage girls at his homes in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Florida, between 2002 and 2005. The details are as disgusting as they are creepy. In short, Epstein allegedly had young girls brought to his homes to perform massages and sex acts in exchange for money. After girls had been brought in, they were sometimes enticed to recruit other girls — and so it went on for years, according to the indictment.
No one has ever overestimated the power of money, and its power to corrupt is absolute. The hubris that passeth all understanding belongs to Epstein.
Pending further revelations, one thing is clear: Acosta should step down from his Cabinet position for dereliction of duty in his prior role — and because he has the spine of a mollusk. In deciding not to fully prosecute Epstein in 2007 — and then agreeing to bury the proceedings without advising the victims — he violated the law, betrayed the victims’ trust, and displayed rare cowardice before justice.
Finally, nobody likes a whiner.
Parker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post. Email her at email@example.com.