WASHINGTON – The Justice Department’s internal disciplinary arm concluded that then-U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta exhibited “poor judgment” but not “professional misconduct” in approving a generous deal for Jeffrey Epstein to resolve allegations that he molested dozens of young girls years ago, drawing rebukes from victims’ lawyers and even the lead prosecutor on the case.
Officials on Thursday released an executive summary of an investigation into the handling of Epstein’s case, now more than a decade old, and briefed victims and their lawyers on its findings. The Washington Post later obtained a copy of the full report. The summary chastised Acosta’s judgment and acknowledged that Epstein’s victims were treated poorly, but it said investigators did not find evidence that his decision to sign off on the deal “was based on corruption or other impermissible considerations, such as Epstein’s wealth, status, or associations.”
Investigators found no evidence suggesting Epstein was an intelligence asset, as some observers have speculated.
The politically connected millionaire, now dead , was known for a highflying lifestyle that included partying with Donald Trump before his election as president and traveling with luminaries such as former president Bill Clinton.
The investigation’s summary also said other prosecutors on the case had not committed professional misconduct. Shortly after its release, Marie Villafaña, who had been the lead line attorney, issued a statement calling the result of Epstein’s case “patently unjust.”
“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. “By not considering those implicit biases based on gender and socioeconomic status, OPR [the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility] lost an opportunity to make recommendations for institutional changes that could prevent results like this one from occurring in the future.”
The report casts Villafaña as particularly aggressive in the case – unsuccessfully advising her superiors not to meet with Epstein’s defense attorneys, complaining about victims not being kept in the loop and pushing for Epstein to be accused of violating the terms of his agreement – though it also says her supervisors, including Acosta, offered reasonable legal or strategic reasons for their actions.
Acosta’s lawyer released a lengthy statement saying that had Acosta “known then what he knows now, he certainly would have directed a different path.”
“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,” the statement said.
“Alex Acosta’s actions caused emotional trauma for countless minors who deserved to be protected by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and allowed a serial molester to escape accountability,” said Adam Horowitz, one of several attorneys representing Epstein victims who attended Thursday’s briefing at an FBI office in South Florida. “He and his office failed to give notice to victims, misled victims, misinterpreted the law and did not treat the abuse survivors with decency and respect. The mountain of mistakes was not just poor judgment. It was reckless.”
Another attorney for Epstein victims, Paul Cassell, said Associate Deputy Attorney General Stacie Harris told those at the briefing that Acosta’s incoming emails between May 2007 and May 2008 could not be recovered and examined due to a “technical glitch.” That’s the period of time, he said, in which Acosta was weighing the Epstein case. Cassell castigated investigators for not interviewing Epstein’s defense attorneys, who he believes exerted undue influence over federal prosecutors.
“This report is a coverup,” Cassell said. “How can you possibly claim you’ve done a thorough investigation without exploring these issues?”
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who has been critical of the department’s handling of the Epstein matter and had pushed for an internal investigation, also blasted the conclusion.
“Letting a well-connected billionaire get away with child rape and international sex trafficking isn’t ‘poor judgment’ – it is a disgusting failure,” Sasse said in a statement. “Americans ought to be enraged. Jeffrey Epstein should be rotting behind bars today, but the Justice Department failed Epstein’s victims at every turn. The DOJ’s crooked deal with Epstein effectively shut down investigations into his child sex trafficking ring and protected his co-conspirators in other states. Justice has not been served.”
The Justice Department publicly revealed the probe in February 2019, writing in a letter to Sasse that it was opening an inquiry into “allegations that Department attorneys may have committed professional misconduct in the manner in which the Epstein criminal matter was resolved.” The letter cited reporting in the Miami Herald, which had detailed how Acosta shelved a 53-page indictment that could have put Epstein behind bars for life.
Acosta would go on to serve as Trump’s labor secretary before he resigned amid uproar over his involvement in the Epstein case.
Epstein’s deal in 2008 ultimately allowed him to admit only to state charges and spend just over a year in jail – with work-release privileges – to resolve the allegations. Victims have alleged they were kept in the dark about it and sued in federal court, claiming prosecutors violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. A federal judge initially agreed with them, though a three-judge appeals court panel overturned that ruling. The case is now being considered by the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.
The investigation and 290-page report represent the most thorough, internal look back the Justice Department has done examining the generous arrangement that Epstein was afforded.
According to the report, the Office of Professional Responsibility reviewed hundreds of thousands of records from various Justice Department components and conducted more than 60 interviews. They focused in particular on Acosta, three former supervisors in the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami and Villafaña.
Though the report addressed each person’s actions in detail, it ultimately seemed to lay blame on Acosta, who it said “made the pivotal decision” to resolve the allegations with a deal in state court.
That blame, though, was limited. The summary essentially accused Acosta of being too deferential to Florida authorities, and it noted that it was outside the purview of Justice Department investigators to explore state actions. The report noted, too, that “Epstein himself was not satisfied” with the agreement and later unsuccessfully appealed to the Justice Department to get it thrown out.
“In sum, Acosta’s application of federalism principles was too expansive, his view of the federal interest in prosecuting Epstein was too narrow, and his understanding of the state system was too imperfect to justify the decision to use the NPA,” the summary concluded, using an acronym for non-prosecution agreement.
It also claimed, as Justice Department lawyers have previously in court, that prosecutors did not break the law in not notifying victims of the deal, because Epstein had not been charged in a federal case. But it portrayed that decision as misguided and asserted it “ultimately created the misimpression that the Department intentionally sought to silence the victims.”
“Acosta failed to ensure that victims were made aware of a court proceeding that was related to their own cases, and thus he failed to ensure that victims were treated with forthrightness and dignity,” the summary alleged.
Cassell noted that Acosta had said in his 2017 Senate confirmation hearing for labor secretary that the decision not to bring federal charges against Epstein was “broadly held” in his office, and at a news conference last year, he stated it was “the judgment of prosecutors with dozens of years of experience.”
“The report lets Acosta take the fall for everybody,” Cassell said. “That’s very convenient since he’s left the Justice Department.”
Another attorney took a less critical view of the report while emphasizing that it would give victims little relief.
“It is a relief that the U.S. Government is recognizing its own failures regarding its handling of this matter,” said attorney Spencer Kuvin. “It does not change the fact that my clients still feel victimized by not only the actions of Epstein and his co-conspirators, but also by the way they were pushed to the side by the people who were supposed to have their best interests at heart and protect them.”
Epstein was charged in 2019 in a new sex trafficking case brought by federal prosecutors in Manhattan, but he killed himself last year while in federal custody awaiting trial. Manhattan federal prosecutors later charged one of Epstein’s longtime confidantes, Ghislaine Maxwell, with recruiting and grooming underage girls for abuse by Epstein. She is awaiting trial.
The Justice Department’s inspector general – a different internal watchdog – had indicated in a letter last year that he wanted to examine the deal, but federal law prevented him from exploring attorneys’ handling of legal questions. The inspector general is generally known as a tougher critic of the department, and his work is often made public.
– – –
The Washington Post’s Shayna Jacobs in New York contributed to this report.