Trump labor nominee talked tough on sex crimes but gave billionaire a ‘sweetheart’ deal
BY JAY WEAVER AND PATRICIA MAZZEI
A decade ago, a Miami Beach father who traveled to Cambodia to pay for sex with three underage girls was found guilty in federal court and convicted of sex tourism involving children.
Kent Frank, 50, was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Miami’s U.S. attorney at the time, Alex Acosta, declared in a news release that society “cannot permit such individuals to seek sanctuary in our community.”
“We will prosecute sexual abuse of children aggressively, both when the targets are children in our community and when the defendants travel to target children abroad,” he vowed.
But Acosta, now President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of labor, made a very different call in another, far more sordid case just months later. The agreement Acosta approved for Palm Beach billionaire Jeffrey Epstein — a “sweetheart plea deal,” according to attorneys for Epstein’s victims — could come back to haunt his Senate confirmation hearing if any senators question Acosta’s judgment in one of the most high-profile cases of his career.
Using his private staff to coordinate the illicit sexual activity, Epstein had paid dozens of girls cash to engage in nude massages, masturbation, oral sex and intercourse in his palatial mansions in Palm Beach, New York City and the U.S. Virgin Islands between 1999 and 2005.
Epstein, then 55 and defended by an all-star legal team, pleaded guilty to a state charge of soliciting minors for prostitution. He registered as a sex offender in Florida and agreed to pay damages to 40 female victims ranging in age from 13 to 17 years old. As part of the plea agreement negotiated by Acosta’s office, Epstein wouldn’t be charged in federal court — even though the feds had drawn up a proposed 53-page indictment that carried potential punishment ranging from a mandatory 10 years in prison up to a life sentence.
Epstein ended up serving just over a year in a Palm Beach County Stockade — while local authorities allowed him during his incarceration to go to work or do whatever he wanted for six days out of every week.
Acosta’s “non-prosecution agreement” — initially kept secret from Epstein’s victims — was signed by the billionaire and his lawyers in September 2007 and amended through the end of that year. The deal also immunized several of his co-conspirators from federal prosecution, a rare bonus.
“Clearly, Epstein received preferential treatment due to his wealth, race and political connections,” said Miami attorney Joel DeFabio, who — citing the Epstein case — tried unsuccessfully to obtain similar treatment for two clients accused of running prostitution rings involving minor girls.
“The charges against Epstein were outrageous, and the evidence was more than enough to obtain a conviction at trial. The fact that Epstein’s wealth enabled him to hire a stellar legal team should not be a valid reason for such a gross disparity in treatment,” DeFabio said. “This matter should be explored by the [Senate] confirmation committee to ensure that Acosta will be committed to equal treatment under the law of all Americans and that he will never give preferential treatment to the wealthy and politically connected.”
Whether to look into the Epstein case will be up to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, which is tasked with considering Acosta’s labor nomination. Although he has been confirmed by the Senate three times in his career, the 48-year-old, Harvard-educated Acosta has never been questioned about decisions made during his four years as U.S. attorney, the last position he held in the federal government. He’s currently dean of Florida International University’s law school.
Trump’s first labor nominee, fast-food executive Andy Puzder, withdrew his nomination last month after it became clear that a series of controversial revelations had killed his chances of confirmation. Labor unions, which campaigned hard against Puzder and celebrated his withdrawal as a victory, quickly welcomed the Acosta pick.
“Working people changed the game on this nomination,” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said in a statement after Trump named Acosta. “In one day, we’ve gone from a fast-food CEO who routinely violates labor law to a public servant with experience enforcing it.”
Top members of the Senate HELP committee did not respond to requests for comment about Acosta’s handling of the Epstein case, though a spokesman for Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee and the committee chairman, said Alexander “believes Mr. Acosta is a well-qualified nominee with an impressive record.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. Acosta has not granted any interviews since his nomination.
But in the past, the Epstein case has plagued Acosta, a bona fide conservative who has developed a reputation as being both pragmatic and shrewd in stints as a National Labor Relations Board member, a top Justice Department administrator and U.S. attorney.
Shortly into his tenure as the head of the Justice Department’s civil-rights division, Acosta launched an anti-slavery initiative, citing the case of a 14-year-old Mexican girl held captive and forced to have sex with up to 30 men a day.
“It is evil. It is hideous,” Acosta said. “It is one of the most horrendous crimes of our society.”
Three years after Epstein’s guilty plea, Acosta broke his silence about the case amid simmering fallout over the billionaire’s plea deal. In a 2011 letter intended for news reporters and the public, Acosta defended his decision to let state authorities charge Epstein instead of the feds.
Acosta noted that the Palm Beach County state attorney’s office had initially charged Epstein in 2006 with only soliciting a prostitute, a misdemeanor offense with no jail time. He asserted that his office and the FBI strengthened the Epstein case to enable state prosecutors to charge him additionally with soliciting minors for prostitution, resulting in jail time for 18 months (reduced to 13 months under a credit system), registration as a Florida sex offender and restitution to victims.
“Some may feel that the prosecution should have been tougher,” Acosta, by then two years into his tenure as law-school dean, wrote in March 2011. “Evidence that has come to light since 2007 may encourage that view.”
But the plea deal’s results were “better” than to “risk a trial with a reduced likelihood of success,” he wrote.
“I supported that judgment then, and based on the state of the law as it then stood and the evidence known at that time, I would support that judgment again,” Acosta, who served as U.S. attorney from 2005-09, said in the letter, in which he also described the “year-long assault” on prosecutors from Epstein’s “army of legal superstars.”
Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, called the letter a “disturbing” sign that Acosta could “buckle under extreme pressure from high-powered attorneys in a slam-dunk, sex-with-underage-girls case.”
“If he’s so weak-kneed on that, what’s he going to do when the high-powered lawyers say, ‘You’ve got to help us break these unions?’ ” she said. “What’s he going to do when the high-powered lawyers go after him and say, ‘You’ve got to stop these women suing for sexual harassment?’ ”
Court records show Acosta’s office also held back on filing a pair of proposed obstruction of justice charges against Epstein. The first would have accused him of harassing two of his personal assistants to thwart FBI agents from serving investigation subpoenas. The second would have accused him of dissuading a female victim from talking with agents.
Epstein, who rose from humble beginnings on Coney Island to become a wealthy Wall Street money manager, once traveled the world in circles that included former President Bill Clinton, England’s Prince Andrew, and then-real-estate mogul Trump. Epstein was once a member of Trump’s private Palm Beach club, Mar-a-Lago.
“I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy,” Trump told New York Magazine in 2002. “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. No doubt about it — Jeffrey enjoys his social life.”
But Trump and Epstein weren’t close, a Trump associate told Politico in 2015.
An anonymous woman later filed a federal lawsuit accusing Trump of raping her two decades earlier when she was a 13-year-old aspiring model. The woman, identified in court papers as “Jane Doe,” alleged that the rape took place at Epstein’s sprawling Manhattan townhouse, where she claimed Epstein had also raped her in 1994.
Trump’s attorney denied the allegations. The woman dropped the lawsuit on Nov. 4, just before the presidential election.
The same allegations had surfaced in two earlier lawsuits that went nowhere. The first, filed in California, accused Trump and Epstein of holding a woman — identified in that complaint as “Katie Johnson” — as a “sex slave.” It was quickly dismissed. Another version of the complaint was later filed and then withdrawn.
Epstein’s secret world of sex with underage girls was exposed in 2005 when the parents of a 14-year-old complained to police that their daughter was paid $300 to give a massage to a man on Palm Beach island. Investigators would eventually find 27 girls who went to Epstein’s mansion on El Brillo Way to perform “massage services,” according to court records.
“During all of these massages, Epstein masturbated himself and he would touch the girl performing the massage, usually fondling their breasts and touching their vaginas — either over their clothing or on their bare skin,” according to a summary written by the lead federal prosecutor, Ann Marie Villafaña. “Epstein often used a vibrator to masturbate the girls and digitally penetrated a number of them. For the girls who saw him more often, Epstein graduated to oral sex and vaginal sex.
“Epstein sometimes brought his assistant/girlfriend … into the sexual activity,” the prosecutor wrote. “One of the girls described [her] as Epstein’s ‘sex slave.’ ”
Palm Beach police turned over their investigation to the state attorney’s office, then headed by Barry Krischer, asking that Epstein be charged with paying minor girls to have sex with him. Epstein’s lawyers pushed back, countering that the billionaire did not know the girls were under 18. Krischer’s office backed off, settling on charging Epstein with a misdemeanor of soliciting a prostitute, with no jail time.
Krischer, now in private practice, did not respond to a request for comment.
Palm Beach investigators, frustrated with the outcome, turned to the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office in 2006 in what would turn into a fiercely fought — and sometimes nasty — showdown with Epstein’s powerful defense team. It included Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, Miami criminal defense attorney Roy Black and Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel in the Clinton-Monica Lewinsky investigation.
During negotiations for a plea deal in 2007, Epstein’s lawyers wrote dozens of emails to Villafaña, the lead prosecutor; Acosta and his first assistant, Jeffrey Sloman, making a series of demands to limit the legal and public-relations damage to their wealthy client. They repeatedly insisted their client’s female victims not be notified of the U.S. attorney’s non-prosecution agreement with Epstein. Acosta’s office held off on notifying them until after the terms were approved by both sides in fall 2007.
But Acosta would not budge on the eventual state charge accusing Epstein of soliciting minors for prostitution, because the U.S. attorney insisted that Epstein be required to register as a sex offender.
“To require registration based on the facts of this case, however, simply does not make sense,” defense attorney Jay Lefkowitz, with the influential Kirkland & Ellis law firm, argued in a September 2007 email to Acosta. “Registration is a life sentence and the FBI’s involvement in this case and their interest in vindication for their efforts cannot justify a punishment harsher that what Mr. Epstein deserves.”
Epstein and his defense team soon signed the federal non-prosecution agreement, which deferred to the state attorney’s office to file the charge of soliciting minors for prostitution. But months passed before he finally pleaded guilty in June 2008. The agreement also allowed 40 of his female victims to pursue damage claims in federal court, which were resolved confidentially.
But days after Epstein’s guilty plea, a handful of his victims sued the U.S. government to force South Florida federal prosecutors to break their agreement not to charge Epstein and others who worked for him with running an alleged sex ring that exploited underage girls. The four plaintiffs, now adult women, said they could sue under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act because they were not notified by prosecutors when they cut the secret non-prosecution agreement that immunized not only Epstein but also his co-conspirators from federal charges.
Last year, a federal judge presiding over the lawsuit ordered both sides to negotiate a settlement, which failed. Fort Lauderdale attorney Bradley Edwards, who represents the women, declined to comment, citing the ongoing legal battle. But during a court hearing, he described Epstein as a serial sexual predator.
“Because of his deviant appetite for young girls, combined with his extraordinary wealth and power, he may just be the most dangerous sexual predator in U.S. history,” Edwards told U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra in 2008.
“The plea bargain that was worked out for Mr. Epstein in light of the offenses that he committed is clearly unfair to the point that if anybody looks at the information, it is unconscionable.”
The judge, seemingly at wit’s end, declared: “That’s not my role. That’s the prosecutor’s role to apply, would it not? I can’t force them to bring criminal charges.”