The story behind a Palm Beach sex offender’s remarkable deal
Democrats are calling for Labor Secretary Alex Acosta’s resignation. Republicans support an internal investigation into Acosta’s role in a controversial plea deal for multimillionaire sex abuser Jeffrey Epstein in 2008.
But Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of President Donald Trump’s biggest defenders in Congress, is taking a different approach.
In an interview with the Miami Herald on Wednesday, Gaetz said reexamining Acosta’s handling of Epstein’s case, which came under increased scrutiny after the Herald’s three-part series Perversion of Justice, sets a “dangerous” precedent for prosecutors. A federal judge ruled last week that prosecutors run by Acosta, then the U.S. attorney for South Florida, broke the law when they failed to inform Epstein’s underge victims of the plea agreement. The judge gave federal prosecutors 15 days to confer with Epstein’s victims and their attorneys to come up with a resolution
“I don’t know what I don’t know and certainly if there is ever an indication of misconduct, that has to be thoroughly reviewed, but I think it’s a dangerous thing to go back and second-guess decisions that prosecutors have to make in real time,” Gaetz said. “I’m deeply troubled by Mr. Epstein’s actions, I think that he certainly should have faced a far stiffer consequence than he did, but having tried cases I know that it’s hard to go back and sort of second-guess the risk analysis that goes into putting witnesses before a jury and subjecting them to cross examination.”
In fact, the judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Kenneth A. Marra was careful to say he was not questioning the prosecution’s authority to sign a non-prosecution agreement. However, the judge said the U.S. attorney had an obligation to consult with Epstein’s victims under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. Acosta’s deliberate decision not to do so — at the insistence of Epstein’s legal team — violated that law, rendering the outcome illegal, Marra wrote in a 33-page order.
Gaetz’s stance is not shared by other South Florida lawmakers, including Republicans.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who introduced Acosta at his confirmation hearing, said he wants to see the results of an investigation into the Justice Department’s internal decision-making process about Epstein’s plea deal before deciding on Acosta’s future.
“We’d love to have an investigation that looks at all that internal deliberation and who knew what about this, how they talk about it, how was this decision ultimately made and what paper trail is there about that decision-making,” Rubio said. “Obviously, newspaper reporting is important but so is whatever facts the Justice Department has in its possession.”
Sen. Rick Scott, Rubio’s fellow Republican, had a similar view, along with Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. Both said Acosta doesn’t need to resign at this time, but want the investigation to continue.
“We don’t really know all the facts yet so it ought to come out,” Scott said. “We need more information.”
Six of the seven Democrats in Congress from Miami-Dade and Broward have called on Acosta to resign, the exception being Rep. Donna Shalala.
Shalala was part of a group of Democrats who signed on to a letter last week demanding the passage of a bill that would allow the Department of Justice’s Inspector General to review the conduct of attorneys within Justice, a power it does not currently have. Acosta was responsible for negotiating Epstein’s agreement when he pleaded guilty to two prostitution charges in state court instead of facing federal charges, even though he was accused of sexually abusing dozens of young girls in his Palm Beach mansion.
Four Democrats, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Rep. Lois Frankel and Rep. Ted Deutch, signed on to a letter calling for President Donald Trump to demand Acosta’s resignation. Rep. Alcee Hastings also said Acosta should go.
“I would think under the circumstances with such a hot lamp on it, he’d be better served to resign,” Hastings said. Hastings, a federal judge who was impeached and removed from office on corruption allegations before successfully running for the House, said he had never seen a plea agreement like Epstein’s during his legal career.
Rep. Frederica Wilson went one step further, saying Acosta should be removed from office if he does not resign.
“The ... manner in which he handled the Epstein case clearly demonstrates that he is not the right person to serve as our nation’s labor secretary,” the Democrat said in a statement. “If he could not stand up against Epstein’s white-shoe attorneys, he clearly is not qualified to take on the networks of human traffickers operating in the United States and represent their victims. Members of Congress are not going to give up on this. Not only should Acosta resign, he should never have been named labor secretary to begin with. And if he does not resign, he should be removed.”
Gaetz, the outlier among those interviewed, is important because he is a key Trump ally who frequently speaks with the president. In his second term in Congress after serving in the state House, Gaetz represents the views of the president’s most fervent supporters and attracts national attention for his defense of the president’s policies and rhetoric.
Gaetz is currently the subject of an inquiry by the Florida Bar after posting a tweet that critics said appeared to be threatening toward former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. The tweet, which was later deleted, implied that Cohen had extramarital relations and was posted the night before the public hearing where Republicans attempted to shred Cohen’s credibility as he detailed his illegal activities on behalf of the president.
Gaetz suggested that Acosta’s decision to cut a plea deal without the victims knowing could have been a move to protect them.
“I don’t know if this was the case in this matter, but as the former criminal justice chairman in Florida, I’ve seen how a lot of these sexual violence cases, the fragility of witnesses and the willingness of witnesses can be a factor,” Gaetz said. “I’m not saying it was here, I’m just saying that in these types of cases it’s something that’s always on the minds of prosecutors.”