WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) - A decade ago, Florida financier Jeffrey Epstein pleaded guilty to sex crimes involving underage girls and got 13 months behind bars. What the public and his accusers didn’t know at the time was that he had secretly struck a deal with federal prosecutors that spared him from charges that could have put him away for the rest of his life.
When the deal finally came to light years later, it immediately raised suspicions that Epstein - a man who counted Bill Clinton and Donald Trump among his friends and had some of the finest legal talent in America as his lawyers - had used his wealth and political connections to win special treatment.
Those allegations flared anew in recent weeks as news organizations, led by The Miami Herald, published interviews with the alleged victims and took a closer look at Alexander Acosta, who as the U.S. attorney in Miami in 2008 approved the secret deal. Acosta is now Trump’s secretary of labor.
On Tuesday, a lawsuit that many had hoped would expose some of the lurid allegations against Epstein by putting some of his accusers on the stand ended abruptly in a settlement just as jury selection was about to begin.
But the attempt to get to the bottom of the Epstein case and how he managed to get such a light sentence is not over: Some of his accusers are pursuing a separate legal effort to nullify the plea agreement and, they hope, expose him to federal prosecution again.
“That injustice needs to be addressed and will be addressed,” said Jack Scarola, one of the attorneys lined up against Epstein. “There is no justification for the broad scope of immunity that was granted.”
Epstein, 65, reached the non-prosecution deal with Acosta’s office while under investigation on suspicion of sexually abusing at least 40 teenage girls. Under the deal, he pleaded guilty to two state charges, did his time in jail, paid settlements to many of the alleged victims and registered as a sex offender.
He could have faced a far more severe penalty if federal prosecutors had pursued a draft 53-page indictment that was never filed and included sex trafficking charges.
Some of Epstein’s accusers are now arguing that their rights were trampled under a federal law that says crime victims must be informed about plea bargains.
One of Epstein’s lawyers, Roy Black, has said there was no conspiracy to violate victims’ rights, and the plea agreement was “no sweetheart deal by any stretch of the imagination.”
Even if the plea bargain is nullified, the final decision on bringing charges would rest solely with the Justice Department.
On Tuesday, Epstein settled a defamation lawsuit brought against him by a lawyer for some of the accusers, Bradley Edwards, who said Epstein tried to derail his representation of the women and ruin his career. In settling, Epstein apologized and agreed to pay an undisclosed amount.
Edwards said some of the accusers - some of whom say they were 13 or 14 when they were molested - were prepared to testify in the lawsuit and may yet get their day in federal court.
“They’re willing to talk. They want to share their stories,” Edwards said.
Congressional Democrats are calling for an internal Justice Department investigation.
Rep. Lois Frankel, who represents the Palm Beach area, said Tuesday that Epstein “allegedly had dozens and dozens of young, vulnerable women, young women taken to his house where they were sexually exploited.”
“I think what has been equally shocking is what I call an extreme minimal punishment for this man without really any public explanation as to why this happened,” Frankel added.
Acosta has not commented about the case during the recent media coverage. He was asked briefly about the non-prosecution agreement at his Senate confirmation hearing.
“At the end of the day, based on the evidence, professionals within a prosecutor’s office decided that a plea that guarantees someone goes to jail, that guarantees he register generally and guarantees other outcomes, is a good thing,” he said.
According to court papers, Epstein had a Palm Beach mansion where girls were brought for what they were sometimes told were massage sessions. He allegedly had female fixers who would look for suitable girls, some of them recruited from Eastern Europe and other parts of the world.
Before the scandal broke, Epstein was friends with Trump and had visited the real estate developer’s Mar-a-Lago resort. Trump told interviewers that Epstein was “a great guy.” Records also show Clinton flew on Epstein’s jet more than two dozen times.
One young woman alleged in court documents that Epstein shared her with his friends, including Britain’s Prince Andrew, a charge denied by Buckingham Palace.
Epstein’s legal team at various times included such big names as Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz.
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