Guest Editorial: Journalism may bring belated justice to Epstein

(Uma Sanghvi/Palm Beach Post via AP) Jeffrey Epstein, center, appears in court in West Palm Beach, Florida, on July 30, 2008. Over the last decade he sought to portray himself as a generous benefactor to children, giving to organizations including a youth orchestra, a baseball league and a private girls school. But Epstein's guilty plea for soliciting a minor for prostitution has not made that easy.

The following editorial originated with a sister newspaper, The Mankato (Minnesota) Free Press.

Last November, the Miami Herald published an explosive expose detailing how a man of wealth and connections won a secret plea bargain that buried a federal sex-trafficking case.

Today, in large part because of the work of the Herald, Jeffrey Epstein — friend of two presidents and a British royal — sits in prison facing a fresh federal indictment in a different jurisdiction, and speculation begins afresh about what other prominent figures might be involved in the financier’s sex ring.

Epstein’s 2008 plea bargain was, according to the Herald, essentially dictated by his defense attorneys and accepted by the then-U.S. attorney for southern Florida, Alexander Acosta. It gave Epstein — who was facing a life sentence for trafficking girls as young as 14 — a wrist-slap 13 months in county jail, with a generous work release that meant he spent little time behind bars. It also granted immunity to others involved in the scheme.

It was also sealed and kept secret until he was out of jail and back into his jet-setting life. The victims were never notified of the agreement, a violation of the Crime Victims’ Rights Act.

Acosta is now secretary of labor for President Trump, himself a longtime acquaintance of Epstein, though Acosta announced his resignation Friday in light of the revelations.

In the past few weeks, the Department of Justice has declared in court documents that yes, the plea bargain was illegally kept secret from the victims of Epstein’s crimes, but that the government remains bound by it. This might be a worthwhile argument for a defense attorney to make, but it should be a professional embarrassment for a prosecutor. An illegal contract is no contract.

Congress has shown little interest in probing the machinations that let Epstein off the hook. The White House, until recently, stood by Acosta.

The Justice Department has given little indication that the career prosecutors Acosta says handled the case face any professional repercussions. The authorities, in short, were quite willing to let this case die.

No more. It is to be hoped that this time, Epstein’s connections and resources won’t be enough to conceal his crimes or shield his compadres. If justice is this time done, it will be because a newspaper kept digging.