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The ‘completely unprecedented’ plea deal Jeffrey Epstein made with Alex Acosta

Politically connected financier Jeffrey Epstein is facing up to 45 years in prison on charges he ran a sex-trafficking ring in the early 2000s that included girls as young as 14. Lisa Desjardins talks to former federal prosecutor Elie Honig about how unusual it is to bring charges this old and why Epstein's previous plea deal with Alex Acosta, now labor secretary, was "completely indefensible."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jeffrey Epstein, a politically connected financier, is now facing up to 45 years in prison on charges that he was running a sex trafficking ring in the early 2000s that included underage girls as young as 14 years old.

    Epstein pleaded not guilty and has said any sex was consensual with women he believed were 18 or older. The charges were announced as part of an indictment unsealed today by federal prosecutors in New York.

    As Lisa Desjardins tells us, Epstein has pleaded guilty before to lesser charges and has more on this story.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Epstein allegedly abused dozens of minors at his homes in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Florida. He enlisted girls to recruit other minors to his trafficking ring. And prosecutors said they seized scores of photos of fully or partially nude girls.

    Epstein, who has been seen in the past as a friend of President Trump and former President Clinton, first faced other sex crime charges back in 2006 and 2007. At the time, he could have faced life in prison for allegations with underage girls. But the prosecutor in the case, Alex Acosta, now President Trump's labor secretary, struck a more lenient deal.

    Epstein served just 13 months in a county jail for these charges. A Miami Herald investigation earlier this year raised new questions about this deal and brought forward new victims.

    U.S. attorney Geoffrey Berman of the Southern District of New York said it was important to bring new charges now.

  • Geoffrey Berman:

    Beginning in at least 2002 and continuing until 2005, Epstein is alleged to have abused dozens of victims by causing them to engage in sex acts with him at his mansion in New York and at his estate in Palm Beach, Florida.

    The alleged behavior shocks the conscience. And while the charged conduct is from a number of years ago, it is still profoundly important to the many alleged victims, now young women. They deserve their day in court. And we are proud to be standing up for them by bringing this indictment.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    For some perspective on all of this and the decisions to bring new charges, I'm joined by Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor with the Southern District of New York.

    Elie, let's start right away with these charges. They are very serious. They include allegations of mistreating and abusing dozens of girls. But they are dating back 14 years and more.

    How unusual is it to have such a delay in bringing charges? And how can prosecutors do that?

  • Elie Honig:

    It is quite unusual to see charges that are this old.

    The reason that the Southern District of New York was able to charge this case so many years after the fact is, there is actually no statute of limitations on the sex trafficking of minor charges that we see here.

    Most federal crimes have a statute of limitations, meaning the time from when the crime is committed until you have to charge it, of five years. But this happens to be one of the few very serious statutes that actually does not have any statute of limitations.

    But I can tell you, the age of these charges will provide some obstacles and some difficulties to prosecutors in proving their case. Memories fade. Evidence disappears.

    So I think these are going to end up being strong charges, but the age here could be an impediment.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Also, of course, of note is the fact that Epstein face that massive indictment back in 2006.

    But, ultimately, that was sealed as part of that plea deal that many call highly unusual.

    My next question is, why isn't this double jeopardy, if he already signed a plea deal in a case about sexual misconduct with minors?

  • Elie Honig:

    So first of all, I would call the plea deal that he got in Florida, the non-prosecution agreement, more than — more than highly unusual. I would call it completely unprecedented. I don't know that I have ever seen a deal that lenient in a case like this.

    So why isn't it double jeopardy? A couple reasons. First of all, Epstein only played to state-level charges. These are now federal charges. And that's not double jeopardy. If the state charges, and then the federal government charges, or vice versa — the Supreme Court actually just clarified this a couple weeks ago — that is not double jeopardy.

    Second of all, the non-prosecution agreement that Epstein entered into with the Southern District of Florida, which was headed by Alex Acosta, is only binding on that one district, the Southern District of Florida. It is not binding on the other U.S. attorney's offices, including the Southern District of New York.

    And the U.S. attorney for the Southern District, Geoffrey Berman, said that today during his press conference. And he's correct.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The Miami Herald has been reporting on this for many months. And so far, Secretary Acosta really has not commented on it. And we asked again also if he had any comment today.

    Do you think there will be fallout for him because he was the prosecutor in this case?

  • Elie Honig:

    Politically, there certainly could be.

    Look, it's already being investigated, sort of what went into his decision-making process. I don't see how he, in any sort of good faith or with a straight face, manages to remain as a Cabinet secretary in this administration.

    That said, he's not shown any signs of resigning. President Trump just today sort of reaffirmed his support for Secretary Acosta, which I think is completely inexplicable.

    This deal that Acosta gave to Epstein years ago is completely indefensible. It's unusual and unprecedented in several respects, in how short a term of prison Epstein faced, 13 months he ended up serving, and most of it on work release.

    The fact that Acosta didn't notify the victims violates federal law, and is something even a first-year prosecutor would know better than to do. So I have to think Acosta knew that and intentionally disregarded that obligation.

    And the fact that Acosta signed a deal that immunized the co-conspirators, the people around Epstein, is very strange. Why would he want to do that unless he was protecting powerful people who he was afraid of?

    So I think he's got some very difficult questions to answer. I also think Congress needs to do its job here and dig in deep on what happened.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I need to ask about those potential ripple effects, about the politicians associated with, of course, Mr. Epstein.

    We know, for example, Donald Trump knew Mr. Epstein.

    Here's a quote from the president, then not president, of course. Donald Trump in 2002 said of Epstein: "He's a lot of fun to be with. It's even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do. And many of them are on the younger side," President Trump acknowledging that at the time.

    And also, of course, we know that former President Clinton flew with Epstein on his private jet reportedly dozens of times.

    Do you think — or how would we learn if any of these individuals, others he's associated with could get caught up in this case?

  • Elie Honig:

    Good question.

    So, the number one way we will learn who else was involved in any respect is if this case goes to trial. When a case goes to trial, all the evidence comes out, names get named, and we will learn everything, if it comes to that.

    Now, if Epstein pleads guilty before a trial, then we're going to end up in a gray area. And, traditionally, what federal prosecutor do is, they don't name other people who've not been indicted. You will give them sort of generic labels, like we saw in the indictment today, employee one, employee two, perhaps customer one.

    Famously, we saw Individual 1, which everyone — in the Michael Cohen case, which everyone could pretty easily tell referred to President Trump.

    So we may see some sort of generic reference to other people involved. And, look, we could have more indictments, in which case we could see other people charged. And we certainly will know who they are.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Elie Honig, former federal prosecutor from the Southern District of New York, thank you for joining us.

  • Elie Honig:

    Thanks for having me.

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