WASHINGTON - The way Alex Acosta tells it, the story is simple. Federal prosecutors in Florida could have taken multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein to trial on sex-crimes charges in a bid to send him to prison for life, but they might have lost and allowed him to walk free. By having him plead guilty in state court, they guaranteed that he'd go to jail - if only for little more than a year.
The problem, according to legal analysts and attorneys for those who have accused Epstein of abuse, is that the tale is far more complex. Current and former law enforcement officials expressed concerns about the number of unusual decisions made in Epstein's favor more than a decade ago.
Court documents show that Acosta's office was amenable to the demands of Epstein's defense team even as it kept Epstein's alleged victims in the dark. And where Acosta would not bring a federal case, federal prosecutors in New York did - on the basis of at least some of the same allegations and evidence that Acosta was considering.
"Tell us why you did what you did? We still don't know why," said Brad Edwards, an attorney who represents some of those who have accused Epstein of abuse. "We just know that it doesn't make any sense and that a federal judge agrees with us that it wasn't right."
Edwards spoke a day after Acosta, now President Donald Trump's labor secretary, held a televised news conference, seeking to explain why when he was the top federal prosecutor in Miami, Epstein was allowed to reach a plea agreement that has been widely criticized as too lenient.
Though Acosta's office prepared a 53-page indictment that could have sent Epstein to prison for life, it was shelved when Epstein pleaded guilty to two felony state charges of solicitation, one involving a minor. He spent just 13 months in a private wing of a county jail and was allowed to leave for work 12 hours a day, six days a week. He was not charged federally at the time.
Federal prosecutors in New York took a considerably different posture, dragging Epstein off his private plane Saturday, searching his home and charging him with sex trafficking. They allege that Epstein, from 2002 to 2005, abused dozens of young girls at his homes in New York and Florida, sometimes paying his victims hundreds of dollars so they would find him others to target. The charges carry a possible 45-year prison sentence.
On Thursday, attorneys for Epstein filed a request in federal court in New York that he be freed on bail in advance of his trial. The attorneys wrote that Epstein was willing to put up his Manhattan mansion and private jet as collateral and agree to home confinement and GPS monitoring, and even hire round-the-clock security to watch him. Prosecutors have argued he should remain jailed because his extreme wealth gives him "practically limitless" means to escape justice. A judge will hear arguments on the matter Monday.
Epstein is a jet-setting financier who has ties to prominent figures including former president Bill Clinton and President Donald Trump, both of whom have sought to play down their connections to him in recent days. Epstein owns six residences - including a private island, a place in Paris and the New York mansion valued at $77 million. His case has attracted considerable attention, as accusers have sued over the previous plea and investigative journalists have explored the matter.
Acosta asserted at his news conference Wednesday that a trial in 2008 would have been "a roll of the dice" and that he wanted to ensure Epstein went to jail and had to register as a sex offender. He raised questions about the evidence in the 2008 case. Notably, though, Epstein's defense attorneys asserted in their court filing that New York prosecutors are "likely relying upon physical evidence seized in connection with the prior investigation." The New York prosecutors have described that evidence as "devastating."
Acosta said during his news conference that his office intervened in the early 2000s to make sure Epstein would be jailed after a grand jury convened by the Palm Beach County state attorney recommended a single charge that would have resulted in no jail time and no requirement that Epstein register as a sex offender.
"Simply put, the Palm Beach state attorney's office was ready to let Epstein walk free, no jail time, nothing," Acosta said. "Prosecutors in my former office found this to be completely unacceptable, and they became involved."
Former Palm Beach County state attorney Barry Krischer disputed that version of events, saying Acosta's "recollection of this matter is completely wrong." And Acosta's characterization is somewhat undercut by internal Justice Department emails that became part of the public court record in subsequent lawsuits.
Those messages show some coordination between federal prosecutors and the Palm Beach County state attorney. They also show a prosecutor in Acosta's office, Marie Villafana, acceding to demands from Epstein's attorneys not to inform alleged victims that the federal criminal investigation had been settled with a non-prosecution agreement.
"My impression was his office felt overpowered and outmanned by Epstein's legal defense team," said Adam Horowitz, a Florida-based attorney who represented some of Epstein's alleged victims. "They had an all-star legal team."
Villafana's notes seem to be favorable to - and she appears to be familiar with - Epstein's defense. She wrote in a Sept. 16, 2007, email to Epstein's team that she would "include our standard language regarding resolving all criminal liability and I will mention 'co-conspirators', but I would prefer not to highlight for the judge all of the other crimes and all of the other persons that we could charge."
About a month later, she asked one of Epstein's lawyers, Jay Lefkowitz, to send a document "to my home e-mail address . . . so I can be ready for some discussions tomorrow."
As those negotiations progressed, Krischer wrote Villafana to say: "Glad we could get this worked out for reasons I won't put in writing. After this is resolved I would love to buy you a cup at Starbucks and have a conversation."
Through a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami, Villafana declined to comment. Efforts to contact Lefkowtiz and Krischer were not successful.
Despite the voluminous back-and-forth between Epstein's lawyers and Acosta's office, prosecutors were saying almost nothing to Epstein's alleged victims.
"From the time the FBI began investigating Epstein until September 24, 2007 - when the NPA was concluded - the Office never conferred with the victims about a NPA or told the victims that such an agreement was under consideration," U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra wrote in a February opinion concluding that prosecutors had violated a federal law guarding victims' rights. NPA is the abbreviation of non-prosecution agreement.
The judge called that a particularly egregious violation of the law requiring that crime victims receive notice of important developments in their cases, because a secret non-prosecution agreement "has a more damaging impact on the victims than a plea agreement entered into without notice."
When FBI agents made contact with a handful of Epstein's alleged victims to let them know of some of the developments in the case, Epstein's lawyers complained, and the notifications ceased, according to court papers. Epstein's lawyers argued that victims should not be told in advance of his state plea or of the non-prosecution agreement, and for months, FBI agents gave a few details to a handful of alleged victims but otherwise kept quiet. The NPA was signed in late 2007, and Epstein entered his plea in state court in June 2008.
"It adds up to a U.S. attorney's office going out of its way to work out a very favorable deal with a target for no apparent good reason," said Gregory Brower, a former U.S. attorney now in private practice at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. "If the office was confident in its decision not to charge, then why is it so afraid to be transparent about the alternative that they agreed to?"
Though the messages and court records seem to show Acosta's office treating Epstein favorably, his attorneys claimed in early 2008 that prosecutors had committed misconduct and were being unfair to their client, according to a person involved in the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.
Epstein's lawyers appealed to Justice Department headquarters to intervene in the case, the person said. Senior officials spent weeks reviewing the issue but decided that the defense lawyers' claims were meritless. After the review, Justice Department officials were more concerned by the conduct of Epstein's defense team toward the alleged victims than anything the prosecutors had done, the person said.
In defending the secrecy surrounding the non-prosecution agreement, Acosta told reporters Wednesday that his career prosecutors did not want Epstein's accusers notified initially because their knowledge of the pending deal, and possible financial compensation, could taint their testimony if the deal fell apart and Epstein went to trial.
"The office was concerned that Epstein might not comply, and we would have to go to trial, and we had to weigh the issue of how much to disclose," Acosta said.
Attorneys for those alleging Epstein abused them said that the explanation was lacking.
"I am amazed at the efforts by Mr. Acosta in his press conference to distance himself from the decisions made by his office," said Spencer Kuvin, a Florida-based lawyer who represented the 14-year-old girl who first brought Epstein's conduct to the attention of the police. "He has still failed to address why his office refused to keep the victims informed of the negotiations, and plea deal, that was being struck at the time."
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Merle reported from New York.
This article was written by Matt Zapotosky, Devlin Barrett, Kimberly Kindy and Renae Merle, reporters for The Washington Post.