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Labor Secretary’s Role in Abuse Deal Could Get DOJ Scrutiny (2)

Jan. 29, 2019, 9:46 PMUpdated: Jan. 29, 2019, 10:42 PM

The Justice Department’s inspector general wants lawmakers to give him the authority to investigate a decade-old plea deal in which Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta allegedly allowed an accused sex offender to skirt the harshest punishment for crimes against teens.

“Your letter raises important questions about the resolution of this case by department attorneys,” DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz said in a Jan. 29 letter to lawmakers. “However, the OIG does not currently have jurisdiction over matters involving allegations of misconduct relating to DOJ attorneys’ handling of litigation or legal decisions.”

The department’s watchdog responded to lawmakers’ calls to look into an agreement that Acosta—then a federal prosecutor in South Florida—reached with lawyers for Miami hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein, which allowed Epstein to avoid federal sex trafficking charges. Epstein was sentenced to 13 months in prison on lesser charges.

Horowitz called on the Senate to take up a bill (H.R. 202) recently passed by the House. He said that legislation would give him the authority to investigate alleged prosecutorial misconduct.

A November Miami Herald report on the Epstein case has renewed public attention to the allegations against Epstein, who was accused of running a teen sex ring out of his Florida home. It’s also brought new criticism to Acosta, who as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida is said to have helped orchestrate the agreement.

Epstein’s all star legal defense team included Harvard University professor Alan Dershowitz, former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, and famed criminal defense attorney Roy Black.

The Labor Department declined Bloomberg Law’s request for comment. A DOL spokeswoman on Jan. 15 told Bloomberg Law that Acosta acted appropriately.

“For more than a decade, this prosecution has been reviewed in great detail by newspaper articles, television reports, books, and Congressional testimony,” the spokeswoman said. “Department of Justice leadership, likewise, reviewed the matter at the time, and the Department has continued to defend the Southern District of Florida’s actions across three administrations and several attorneys general on the grounds that the actions taken were in accordance with Department practices, procedures, and the law.”

Acosta was rumored to be on a short list of potential replacements for Jeff Sessions as the U.S. Attorney General before the Herald story was published. The former Justice Department civil rights chief and National Labor Relations Board member is also widely believed to be interested in a federal judge seat.

The renewed attention to the Epstein case and possible DOJ investigation may put that goal on the back burner.

Acosta in a 2011 letter obtained by the Daily Beast said he was brought into the case because local police officers were concerned that state prosecutors would let Epstein off easy. He said the deal was reached after Epstein’s lawyers launched “a year-long assault on the prosecution and the prosecutors” that was “more aggressive than which I, or any of the prosecutors in my office, had previously encountered.”

The House Jan. 15 passed by voice vote the Inspector General Access Act, which would move DOJ prosecutor misconduct probes to the inspector general from the Office of Professional Responsibility. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), whose panel would likely get first crack at the bill, recently joined Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) in urging Attorney general nominee William Barr to conduct a “full and thorough” investigation of the Epstein case if confirmed for the post.

A Graham spokesman didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg Law’s request for comment.

To contact the reporters on this story: Chris Opfer in New York at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; Jaclyn Diaz in Washington at jdiaz@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Terence Hyland at thyland@bloomberglaw.com