Editors’ note: Jeffrey Epstein hanged himself on Saturday in a Manhattan jail, according to corrections officials. This editorial was originally published in early July, and while Mr. Epstein will never face trial, the investigations into his crimes and those of others must continue. On Friday, thousands of pages of documents were released offering more details into the abuse allegations against Mr. Epstein. The past month has also brought to light many of Mr. Epstein’s powerful connections to academia and business elites. There also continue to be many concerns about Mr. Epstein’s 2008 plea agreement and the role of Alexander Acosta, the former Trump administration labor secretary, in executing it when he was United States Attorney in Miami. We can only hope that many of these questions will be answered in months to come.
On Monday, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York unsealed a 14-page indictment against Jeffrey Epstein, charging the wealthy financier with operating and conspiring to operate a sex trafficking ring of girls out of his luxe homes on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and in Palm Beach, Fla., “among other locations.”
Even in the relatively sterile language of the legal system, the accusations against Mr. Epstein are nauseating. From “at least in or about” 2002 through 2005, the defendant “sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls,” some as young as 14 and many “particularly vulnerable to exploitation.” The girls were “enticed and recruited” to visit Mr. Epstein’s various homes “to engage in sex acts with him, after which he would give the victims hundreds of dollars.” To “maintain and increase his supply of victims,” he paid some of the girls “to recruit additional girls to be similarly abused,” thus creating “a vast network of underage victims.”
If convicted, Mr. Epstein faces up to 45 years in prison. This seems a reasonable, if belated, punishment for the rampant abuse of girls of which Mr. Epstein stands credibly accused.
But Mr. Epstein is not the only one for whom a reckoning is long overdue.
The allegations in the New York indictment are a depressing echo of those that Mr. Epstein faced in Florida more than a decade ago, when his perversion first came to light. In 2008, federal prosecutors for the Southern District of Florida, at the time led by Alexander Acosta, who is now the nation’s secretary of labor, helped arrange a plea deal for Mr. Epstein that bent justice beyond its breaking point.
In exchange for pleading guilty to two state counts of soliciting prostitution from a minor, Mr. Epstein avoided a federal indictment that could have put him in prison for life. Instead, he served 13 months in a private wing of the Palm Beach county jail, where liberal work-release privileges allowed him to spend 12 hours a day, six days a week in his private office. Mr. Epstein paid restitution to some of his victims and was required to register as a sex offender — a designation that he later tried to have downgraded in New York to a less restrictive level.
In addition to short-circuiting federal charges, the plea agreement killed an F.B.I. investigation and granted immunity to any “co-conspirators.” As detailed last fall in a blockbuster series by Julie K. Brown of The Miami Herald, Mr. Acosta and his office worked unusually closely with Mr. Epstein’s legal team on the deal. Both sides also labored to keep the agreement secret until it was finalized — including from Mr. Epstein’s victims. This, a federal judge ruled in February, violated the rights of those victims, who have pushed for justice ever since.
Not long after his release, Mr. Epstein returned to New York and reminded a local reporter that, legally, he was a sexual “offender,” not a “predator.” He joked, “It’s the difference between a murderer and a person who steals a bagel.”
At first glance, the Epstein saga looks like another example of how justice is not, in fact, blind — of how it tilts toward the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable. Mr. Epstein, who has claimed to have made his fortune managing other rich people’s money, was not just wealthy; he was politically and socially wired, hobnobbing with such boldfaced names as Prince Andrew, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.
He donated tens of millions of dollars to institutions like Harvard University, which he never attended but where he financed construction of a campus building and formed strong connections to faculty members and administrators. He is also known for having amassed a quirky “collection” of scientists, in whom he liberally invested over the years.
Upon closer examination, this case offers an even more warped picture of justice. Mr. Epstein retained a cadre of high-price, high-profile lawyers who went after prosecutors with everything they had — at least according to Mr. Acosta. In 2011, facing criticism over the plea agreement, Mr. Acosta complained about having endured “a yearlong assault” by Mr. Epstein’s legal sharks. During his 2017 confirmation hearings to become labor secretary, Mr. Acosta claimed to have forged the best deal possible under the circumstances.
That is hardly comforting. It betrays a system in which the rich and well-connected can bully public officials into quiescence — or into pursuing a deal so favorable to the accused that it runs afoul of the law.
Neither should Mr. Acosta and his former team members be allowed to wave off the tough or awkward questions that are likely to arise going forward. Under pressure from Congress, the Justice Department has opened a review into the handling of the case, and last Wednesday a federal appeals court in New York ordered the unsealing of up to 2,000 pages of related documents. Already, distressing new details are surfacing in the case. Most notably, when Mr. Epstein’s Manhattan residence was searched over the weekend, according to a court filing from prosecutors, law enforcement officials recovered “hundreds — and perhaps thousands — of sexually suggestive photographs of fully- or partially-nude females,” some of which “appear to be of underage girls.”
In his request that Mr. Epstein be held without bail, the United States attorney for New York’s Southern District, Geoffrey Berman, noted, “The defendant, a registered sex offender, is not reformed, he is not chastened, he is not repentant.”
Whatever new details emerge, whatever new participants may be implicated, whatever public officials are found to have failed in protecting Mr. Epstein’s victims, the time for secrecy and excuses and sweetheart deals is over. Mr. Epstein’s victims have waited long enough for answers, and they deserve justice.
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