Manhattan Court Signals Move to Open Epstein Teen Sex Documents

March 11, 2019, 7:59 PM

A federal appeals court in New York today said it’s inclined to start unsealing some documents that could shed new light on the teen sex trafficking case against Miami hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s role in Epstein’s controversial plea deal.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said it intends to open documents filed in connection with a summary judgment motion in a federal defamation lawsuit by Virginia Giuffre, one of Epstein’s alleged victims, against British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell. Giuffre alleges Maxwell and Epstein recruited her into a forced sex ring at Epstein’s home in Florida when Giuffre was a minor.

The ruling comes just five days after the three-judge panel heard arguments over requests by the Miami Herald, Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz, and others to unseal the documents. It also follows a February ruling from a federal court in Florida that Acosta and other prosecutors violated the law by failing to properly inform Epstein’s accusers of the plea deal. The agreement allowed the well-connected financier to escape serious criminal charges related to the alleged trafficking operation, instead serving 13 months in state prison.

“The presumption has to be of openness, that the material should be made available to the public,” Second Circuit Judge Jose Cabranes said at a hearing March 6.

The court decisions and a new Justice Department investigation into how the case was handled have turned up the heat on Acosta, who was U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida at the time.

The Epstein saga has been the subject of swirling public attention following a November Miami Herald report detailing the allegations and the plea deal. A handful of Democrats and progressive groups have called for Acosta to resign, but labor unions, Democratic leaders, and others appear to be waiting for the litigation and DOJ probe to play out.

Epstein was accused of using employees to bring local teen girls to his Palm Beach home for sex and paying them to recruit new victims. The alleged victims were as young as 13 years old at the time.

Giuffre sued Maxwell for defamation after Maxwell accused Giuffre of lying. The case was eventually settled, but the Miami Herald intervened to ask the court to unseal a wide range of deposition testimony and other documents related to the claims. That includes deposition testimony, motions, exhibits, and court decisions in the defamation case, which turned on whether Giuffre’s allegations are true. Dershowitz, who was part of Epstein’s defense team, wants the documents opened to combat Giuffre’s claims that Epstein directed her to have sex with Dershowitz.

The court in a 2-1 decision said it will unseal the summary judgment documents on March 19. It gave lawyers for the parties until that time to lodge any objections.

Safe for Now?

Florida federal Judge Kenneth Marra ruled Feb. 21 that Acosta and the other prosecutors violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by entering the agreement without telling the alleged victims and “misleading” them to believe that Epstein may still be prosecuted in federal court. The law gives alleged victims broad rights to be involved in and “reasonably heard” during legal proceedings.

Marra made clear, however, that he wasn’t ruling on the validity of the deal itself.

Acosta has said through a DOL spokeswoman that he welcomes the new investigation and stands by his work as a federal prosecutor. The spokeswoman said the Justice Department has backed Acosta’s actions through three administrations.

Acosta has previously said that he and other prosecutors were subjected to “a year-long assault” from Epstein’s defense lawyers.

Epstein’s all-star legal defense team included Dershowitz, former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, and famed criminal defense attorney Roy Black. Jay Lefkowitz, who previously worked with Acosta at Kirkland and Ellis, also was part of the team.

Acosta’s supporters point out that the plea deal forced Epstein to compensate victims and register as a sex offender.

Acosta made the “best possible decision and deal” in a “very complicated case,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Feb. 22. President Donald Trump later the same day called Acosta “a fantastic labor secretary.”

Marie Villafana, who worked as a federal prosecutor under Acosta on the Epstein case, told a federal court in 2017 that one alleged victim who initially declined to speak with investigators was represented by a lawyer whose fees were paid by Epstein. The same alleged victim later told investigators that Epstein never had sexual contact with her, according to Villafana. She also said other alleged victims declined to participate in the prosecution’s case.

‘Negligent in His Duty’

Critics say that if Acosta can’t stand up to accused pedophiles and their powerful lawyers, he has no business running an agency designed to protect workers.

“This despicable unjust plea deal that was arranged by Acosta showed no respect for the suffering of the victims and credible accounts of human trafficking and was a clear abuse of power for political gain,” a group of 19 Democrats, led by Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) and Jackie Speier (Calif.), wrote in a Feb. 22 letter to the White House. The lawmakers said Acosta “was negligent in his duty” in representing the victims and the U.S. government.

The AFL-CIO and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill are largely holding their tongues for the time being. They’re concerned that Deputy Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella, a Republican operative who early in his career worked with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, likely would take a more aggressive anti-union stance if he were to replace Acosta.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Opfer in New York at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at snadel@bloomberglaw.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bloomberglaw.com

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