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Labor secretary under fire as disturbing Epstein details continue to emerge

A federal judge ruled Thursday that prosecutors led by current Labor Secretary Alex Acosta broke the law when he was U.S. attorney in Florida. Acosta's team allegedly concealed a plea agreement from more than 30 underage victims who had been sexually abused by billionaire Jeffrey Epstein. Amna Nawaz talks to Julie Brown of the Miami Herald about the troubling details she heard from victims.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first: A federal judge ruled yesterday that prosecutors led by Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta in 2008, when he was U.S. attorney in Florida, broke the law by concealing a plea agreement.

    As Amna Nawaz reports, the sex crimes case involved more than 30 underage victims.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The plea deal a decade ago for billionaire hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein reduced charges of federal sex crimes, with a potential life sentence in prison, to lesser state charges of soliciting a minor and just 13 months in county jail.

    Epstein was accused of building a vast network of underage girls, some as young as 13, girls he sexually abused in his Florida mansion, and allowed other adult men to abuse as well.

    In 2011, Acosta wrote that he wasn't aware of the full extent of Epstein's abuse back when he struck the plea deal. Many of the details only came to light late last year, when The Miami Herald published an extensive investigation, including interviews with dozens of victims.

    The work was led by reporter Julie K. Brown, who was awarded the George Polk Award earlier this week.

    And Julie K. Brown joins me now.

    Julie, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    It's an extraordinary piece of reporting. It boggles the mind, though, why it took so long to come to light. So just start there. Tell us, how did you first learn about this story? Why did you start to dig at it the way you did?

  • Julie K. Brown:

    Well, you know, the pieces of this story, the outline of this story had been known for many, many years.

    A lot of journalists had written about this deal, sort of scratching their heads about, how could something like this happen? And when Alexander Acosta, the Miami — U.S. attorney in Miami, was nominated by President Trump last year as labor secretary — or in 2017, rather — as labor secretary, I sort of wanted to hear what he was going to say when he would be asked about this case.

    And I was kind of astonished that he wasn't asked much about it all, and the answers that he did give really weren't responsive to the questions he was asked.

    And so, I thought, you know, it's been a long time. This was before the MeToo movement. But I kept thinking, I wonder what these victims, these girls — at the time, they were 13, 14 and 15, now in their late 20s and 30s — are thinking about the fact he has advanced so far in his career after, in essence, in their minds, betraying them.

    So I set about trying to I set about trying to find out who these victims were and eventually convinced just a handful of them, quite frankly, to go public. But I spoke to many more than a handful of them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And the details they share in those interviews with you are just so incredible, jaw-dropping, and the consistencies across so many of their stories.

    I want to share actually just a quick piece of one interview from one of the women you interviewed. Her name is Virginia Roberts, and here's what she told you used to happen at Epstein's house.

  • Virginia Roberts:

    It ended with sexual abuse and intercourse, and then a pat on the back, you have done a really good job, like, you know, thank you very much, and here's $200.

    You know, before you know it, I'm being lent out to politicians and to academics and to people that — royalty and people that you just — you would never think, like, how did you get into that position of power in the first place, if you're this disgusting, evil, decrepit person on the inside?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Julie, women like Virginia lived for over a decade knowing the U.S. attorney, Alex Acosta in this case, declined to prosecute the man who abused them. When you first approached them, were they willing to talk to you?

  • Julie K. Brown:

    Oh, no. That was probably the hardest part, trying to convince them to trust me, because a lot — as I mentioned, there has been a lot written about the case.

    They have never really spoken publicly, because, quite frankly, they felt that their story really had never been told. So part of what I did was, I did some homework on it. I interviewed some sexual assault survivors and some counselors to try to prepare me, not — to interview them in such a way as to get to the root of their trauma, without re-traumatizing them, which was a delicate balance.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, help us understand that, because, obviously, in your series of reports, you lay out the physical evidence, the witness testimonies, everything there was to build a case against Epstein.

    How do we understand this decision not to prosecute? What do we know about what happened behind the scenes before Acosta made that decision?

  • Julie K. Brown:

    We actually know a lot, because these girls, after the deal was signed, they filed a federal lawsuit against the government, alleging and claiming that they violated the Crime Victims Rights Act, because they didn't inform these girls of this plea bargain, and they kept it secret.

    And as part of this lawsuit, the government had to turn over a lot of e-mails and letters, and those e-mails and letters show a pretty collegial relationship between the prosecutors and Epstein's lawyers.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And we know now the federal judge yesterday said that that plea deal, the way that it was signed, without notifying victims, that was illegal.

    Sarah Sanders over at the White House was asked about that today, because, as we have noted, Mr. Acosta is now the labor secretary under President Trump. She said it's something they're looking into.

    But, I guess, from the victims' perspectives, those women you have spoken with, what is it that they want to see happen now? What does justice and accountability look like all these years later?

  • Julie K. Brown:

    Well, they really want to see him go to prison. They want to see him punished for the crimes that he committed.

    We know, because of evidence that has come to light over the past several years, that he wasn't just doing this in Palm Beach. He's accused of trafficking girls in New York and other places around the world. And the question is out there is, why haven't federal authorities reopened this case or at least opened a new case in another jurisdiction?

    And I think that these women feel that prosecutors and the Justice Department has just worked to help cover up this case, rather than expose what Epstein did and to find some kind of justice for these girls.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A lot of questions still remain.

    Julie K. Brown, it's an incredible piece of reporting you have done for The Miami Herald. Thank you so much for being with us today.

  • Julie K. Brown:

    Thank you.

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