The former US attorney who negotiated the deal allowing Jeffrey Epstein to escape federal charges in 2007 exercised “poor judgment” but did not engage in misconduct, the Department of Justice said on Thursday.
Alexander Acosta, who later served as Donald Trump’s labour secretary, had as the Miami US attorney let Epstein sign a non-prosecution agreement to resolve an investigation into his sexual abuse of underage girls.
The deal meant the financier pleaded guilty to less serious state charges of soliciting prostitution from a minor. He ultimately served less than 13 months, much of which was spent out on work release at his own office.
An internal justice department unit tasked with upholding professional standards began investigating the deal last year after reporting from the Miami Herald renewed attention on Epstein’s crimes.
Epstein was indicted on sex trafficking charges but died in jail in August 2019 in what was ruled a suicide. An associate, Ghislaine Maxwell, was indicted this year for allegedly aiding Epstein and remains in jail awaiting trial. She has denied the charges.
A summary of the report from the justice department unit, the Office of Professional Responsibility, released on Thursday said that there was “no clear and unambiguous standard” that Mr Acosta had violated in agreeing the deal with Epstein.
OPR also said it found no evidence the settlement was the result of “corruption or other impermissible considerations, such as Epstein’s wealth, status, or associations”.
The summary recounted Mr Acosta’s view that primary responsibility for prosecuting Epstein lay with state officials, and that his role was to serve as a “backstop”.
At a press conference last year, Mr Acosta said his actions prevented state officials giving Epstein an even more lenient deal. Soon after, he resigned as labour secretary, citing the distraction that the controversy over his actions was causing.
At the time, Mr Trump said: “He made a deal that people were happy with, and then 12 years later they were not happy with it.”
Despite clearing Mr Acosta of misconduct, the OPR said he had exercised “poor judgment”, including in resolving the probe “before significant investigative steps were completed” and agreeing to “several unusual and problematic terms” in the non-prosecution agreement.
The summary does not specify the terms, but the deal has been criticised for giving immunity to “any potential co-conspirators”, not just those named in the agreement.
Ben Sasse, a Republican senator from Nebraska who had demanded the review of Epstein’s deal, on Thursday condemned the justice department’s conclusions and said that “justice has not been served”.
“Letting a well-connected billionaire get away with child rape and international sex trafficking isn’t ‘poor judgment’ — it is a disgusting failure. Americans ought to be enraged,” Mr Sasse said in a statement. The senator called on the justice department to release the full report.
A judge last year said Mr Acosta had broken the law by failing to ensure that Epstein’s victims were notified in advance about the deal the justice department had agreed in 2007.
OPR said it did not find evidence that this failure “was for the purpose of silencing victims” but said it “reflected poorly” on the justice department and was “contradictory to the department’s mission to minimise the frustration and confusion that victims of a crime endure”.