One Cabinet member after another has been forced to leave the Trump administration over corruption and other issues in recent months, leaving Trump’s Cabinet at its most unstable since he assumed office two years ago. We look at whether Trump’s Labor Secretary Alex Acosta will be the next Trump Cabinet member to go, after an explosive Miami Herald investigation revealed that Acosta cut what’s been described as “one of the most lenient deals for a serial child sex offender in history” as U.S. prosecutor in Florida. Multimillionaire hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein—friend to Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and others—has been accused of molesting and trafficking hundreds of underage girls in Florida, but served just 13 months in county jail. We speak with Julie Brown, longtime investigative reporter at the Miami Herald. Her series exposing multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes is titled “Perversion of Justice.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. One Cabinet member after another has been forced to leave the Trump administration over corruption and other issues, leaving Trump’s Cabinet at its most unstable since he’s assumed office two years ago. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Departments of Justice and the Interior are all being headed by acting officials.
We turn now to look at whether Trump’s labor secretary, Alex Acosta, will be the next Trump Cabinet member to go. As U.S. prosecutor in Florida, Acosta cut what’s been described as “one of the most lenient deals for a serial child sex offender in history.” Multimillionaire hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein, friend to Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and others, has been accused of molesting and trafficking hundreds of underage girls in Florida, but served just 13 months in a Florida county jail. Fifteen congressmembers have called for a probe into Trump’s labor secretary.
The Miami Herald recently published a series of articles exposing Epstein’s crimes and the high-powered people who protected him. In the wake of the investigation, Epstein settled a defamation lawsuit against the lawyer of some of his accusers, avoiding testimonies from survivors who were expected to take the stand. A separate case to overturn the original 2008 plea deal is still pending.
For more, we’re joined by Julie Brown, longtime investigative reporter at the Miami Herald, past winner of the George Polk Award, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Center Award. Her series exposing multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes is headlined “Perversion of Justice.”
Julie, welcome to Democracy Now! This investigation is epic. Explain why you focused on Jeffrey Epstein, how you learned about his story, and give us the background.
JULIE BROWN: Well, I had covered a number of stories about the Florida prison system, and I had—I knew that sex trafficking was a big problem here in Florida. And every time, quite frankly, I started to do a story about sex trafficking and do some homework on it, Mr. Epstein’s name kept coming up. And the more that I read about it, the more I thought, you know, this is something that I don’t understand—I’m sure a lot of people don’t understand—how, in a state that has a high rate of sex trafficking—how does someone who has trafficked all these girls—these were young high school, middle school girls—over quite a long period of time, how does someone like that get away with it, when, at the time that this happened, Alex Acosta, who was the U.S. attorney in Miami, was going headstrong into prosecuting people who were purveyors of child pornography, sending them to prison for decades? And here is a man who had trafficked a number—some estimates are as many as hundreds—of girls, and he gets away with just serving a 13-month jail term, really, in a very cozy area of the county jail, where he was allowed to leave, most of the day, on work release.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, explain who—
JULIE BROWN: And so, I essentially decided—go ahead.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain who Jeffrey Epstein is. Talk about his rise to power and who his associates are, leading right up to the president of the United—two presidents of the United States, from Donald Trump to Bill Clinton.
JULIE BROWN: Well, the way that he obtained his money has always been a mystery. It’s almost as though no one has ever examined how he got his money. It’s surprising that the federal authorities didn’t look into that, because he seemed to have just a never-ending cash flow. He was able to hire some of the biggest and most costly lawyers in America to defend him. And—
AMY GOODMAN: He was a New York City schoolteacher.
JULIE BROWN: He was, but he never graduated from college. Very, very smart. He was into physics and mathematics and biology. And he worked for Bear Stearns. And then he managed to ingratiate himself with some very wealthy, powerful people and managed their money. And as a result of managing a lot of famous people and wealthy people’s money, he himself made a lot of money. And as I said, it’s really a mystery exactly how much money he has and where it came from, but he has, it seems, like a never-ending source of cash. And he was able to really hire the best defense that his money could buy.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a video that accompanies your piece, this Miami Herald exposé, where we hear the voices of the young women, now older, describing what happened to them.
JENA-LISA JONES: We were little girls.
MICHELLE LICATA: I was 16.
VIRGINIA ROBERTS: I was 16.
COURTNEY WILD: I started going to him when I was like 14, 15—14 turning 15.
JENA-LISA JONES: If you think, at 14, $200, that’s a lot of money at 14 years old. I mean, that’s a lot of money now.
VICTIM: She was like, “Oh, you know, do you need to make any extra money?” I’m like, “Yeah.” She’s like, “OK, I can give you like $20. There’s this older guy in Palm Beach. He gets a lot of massages from girls.”
MICHAEL REITER: They were recruited by someone who was adept at finding girls that would be willing to go to a house for a few hundred dollars. And as it started out, give a man a back rub, but many cases, it turned into something far worse than that, elevated to a crime, and serious crime—in some cases, sexual batteries.
COURTNEY WILD: My life would have been different if I would have never went to Jeffrey Epstein’s house. It was just a dark turning point in my life.
NARRATOR: On June 30th, 2008, Jeffrey Epstein, a Palm Beach multimillionaire hedge fund manager, received what might have been the most lenient plea deal for a serial sex offender in U.S. history. The Miami Herald identified over 60 of his victims, just young middle and high school girls at the time of the abuse. More than a decade later, several of them are talking for the first time about how they were molested by Epstein and believed they were betrayed by the very prosecutors who were supposed to hold Epstein accountable.
JACK SCAROLA: They came from fairly disadvantaged backgrounds. There was some dysfunction in their families. The lure of a lot of money was more than they were able to resist.
VIRGINIA ROBERTS: I went from an abusive situation to being a runaway to living in foster homes to just already being hardened by life on the streets.
JENA-LISA JONES: The other girls that I personally know of that went were coming from trailer parks that were having gun shootings, drugs.
COURTNEY WILD: My mother was on drugs at the time, and she couldn’t provide for me. And I was pretty much homeless.
JACK SCAROLA: One child would be lured over, would be paid substantial sums of money, would be offered the further inducement of being paid a bounty for anybody else that she was able to bring to Epstein. A network developed where many young girls in the same kinds of circumstance wound up being victimized.
JENA-LISA JONES: The three of us slid into the backseat of the cab, and we drove, and I remember just driving down Okeechobee Boulevard and thinking how I had never been on Palm Beach Island before, in my whole entire life that I had lived in West Palm Beach.
COURTNEY WILD: By the time I was 16, I brought him up to 75 girls, all the ages of, you know, 14, 15, 16, people going from eighth grade to ninth grade. At just school parties is where I would recruit them from.
VIRGINIA ROBERTS: All Jeffrey cared about was “Go find me more girls.” His appetite was insatiable. He couldn’t stop. He wanted new, fresh, young faces every single day.
MICHAEL REITER: The sheer volume of girls, the frequency—sometimes several or many in the same day—the age of the girls. In some cases, they were victims that didn’t know each other, had never met each other, but they had basically the same story.
MICHELLE LICATA: I remember there was a staircase. And it was like kind of like a spiral almost.
VIRGINIA ROBERTS: And she brings us up the stairs. And it was like spiral stairs.
COURTNEY WILD: You walked into his bedroom, around his bed, to almost like a very little hall, and then it was another door. And that’s where everything would happen, is in his bathroom. He would have a dresser, and it was filled with like—the first drawer was lotion, and then like the third drawer down was like sex toys. So, we would take the massage table out and set it up in the middle of the room.
JENA-LISA JONES: And then he came in with his white towel on around him.
MICHELLE LICATA: And then he just laid down in his towel on his stomach, and he was just talking to people on the phone. When he flipped over, that’s when he said, “OK, you can go ahead and take off your shirt and pants, but you can stay in your underwear.”
COURTNEY WILD: He would want us to stand next to him, and he would masturbate while he stared at us, touched us.
JENA-LISA JONES: To pull his nipples and to play with him in between his fingers. And also, while I was playing with his nipples, he kept doing that stuff to me. But he was very aggressive, like when he would do it.
MICHELLE LICATA: And then he tried to put his finger in my underwear, and I like jumped back. And I went—I pulled back. And I was like, “Whoa.” And he’s like, “No, no, no. No, it’s OK. It’s OK. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I won’t do that. I won’t do that.” And then he went back to doing that. He’s like, “Just on the outside.” And I’m like, “Oh, my god!”
VIRGINIA ROBERTS: It ended with sexual abuse and intercourse, and then a pat on the back. “You’ve 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?
NARRATOR: Epstein, then in his fifties, was also suspected of organizing sex activities with underage girls at his homes in New York City, New Mexico and on his private island in the Caribbean.
BRAD EDWARDS: You’re talking about hundreds of children all over the world.
MIKE FISTEN: Victims that were alleged sex slaves of Jeffrey Epstein that they bought over from Eastern Bloc countries.
VIRGINIA ROBERTS: I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of girls go through Jeffrey’s swinging door, his ever-revolving door.
JENA-LISA JONES: This guy is big time. He knows people that know people that know people.
NARRATOR: Flight logs from his plane and his address book read like a Who’s Who of some of the richest and most famous and powerful people in the world—celebrities, actors, philanthropists, academics and world leaders.
SIGRID McCAWLEY: It’s really disappointing to look—as a lawyer, to look at the circumstance and say, “How did this happen?” One individual commits one abuse of a minor in—one instance of abuse of a minor, and they’re held accountable for years and years through the criminal justice system. This individual abused hundreds of girls, and nothing happened. It’s really, really unfortunate. We look at that, and we say, “How did the criminal justice system fail these girls in such a significant way? How has that happened?”
NARRATOR: There was ample physical evidence and witness testimony to support the girls’ stories, including notepads seized from Epstein’s home with their names and phone numbers, along with phone records. Despite the corroborating evidence, Palm Beach State Attorney Barry Krischer wanted to charge Epstein only with a misdemeanor.
MICHAEL REITER: And once that happened, it was clear to me that justice would not be served by the state attorney in the handling of the case. And we referred it to the FBI. And then there were many, many more victims after that time.
BRAD EDWARDS: Epstein hired somebody that would impress the state attorney, Barry Krischer, to drop the investigation
MIKE FISTEN: The U.S. Attorney’s Office got involved with this case, with Jeffrey Epstein’s A list of defense attorneys, that are extremely well known and extremely powerful. I think these attorneys were able to manipulate the sitting U.S. attorney and the assistant U.S. attorney working the cases. A few things happened in this case that during my law enforcement career I’ve never seen before. The U.S. attorneys here had an indictment, and they were sending it back and forth to Jeffrey’s lawyers for changes. Never seen anything like that before.
BRAD EDWARDS: I started getting somewhat of an inclination that this is a situation where somehow, for some reason, the defendant and the government are working together against the victims. Although that kind of conspiracy theory sounds so preposterous that I didn’t want to believe it.
AMY GOODMAN: Video report produced by the Miami Herald, based on Julie Brown’s investigative reporting. Julie Brown is with us now. It is such an astounding story, Julie. It actually goes through this day. Take it from there and what happened to him, and Alex Acosta’s role, the current labor secretary. You know, to be clear, Donald Trump, quoted in New York Magazine in 2002, said, “I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it, Jeffrey enjoys his social life.” His plane, referred to by the press as the “Lolita Express,” President Clinton took it many times, his flights. But explain what happened with Alex Acosta and where this all goes, from the report we just heard.
JULIE BROWN: Well, Alex Acosta was a Republican who was nominated in the Justice Department under President George W. Bush. He was also, at one point, in the administration, in the Bush administration, as the second in charge of the Department of Civil Rights in the Justice Department. And from there, he was nominated to become U.S. attorney in Miami.
And so, at the time that this case popped up in West Palm Beach, you know, Epstein was very much affiliated with Democratic causes. He was friends with the Clintons. He had donated money to Governor Richardson in New Mexico, where he also owns a property. He had a lot of important friends on both sides of the political aisle, but, that said, he knew at the time that since it was a Republican administration and Acosta was a Republican, that it was very important that—you know, Epstein realized it was very important for him to hire lawyers that had Republican connections.
And that’s what he did. He hired Jay Lefkowitz and Kenneth Starr, who were both with the well-known law firm Kirkland & Ellis, and who Acosta knew from his days working for that same law firm. So, they all had rubbed shoulders in the same kind of legal circles as well as political circles. So, Epstein was pretty shrewd in who he hired as lawyers, even though he was more aligned with Democrats. He knew that what he needed to do was hire Republicans. And that’s essentially what he did. He hired people who knew Acosta and who Acosta looked up to. You know, Kenneth Starr, of course, was someone that Acosta would have looked up to.
And so, I think it made it very hard for Alex Acosta to feel like he was going to go up against all these people. He was ambitious, and he wanted to go further in his political career. And there’s a school of thought out there that he acquiesced to a lot of these lawyers’ demands because he knew that if he went against these lawyers, it probably would have hurt his political career.
AMY GOODMAN: And now congressmembers are calling for an investigation into his role in—and what has happened at this point with Jeffrey Epstein? We just have 30 seconds, then we’ll do Part 2 of this and post it online at democracynow.org.
JULIE BROWN: Well, you know, he served his 13 months quite a number of years ago, and, you know, he was released in 2008. And he has basically just gone on to live his jet-setting life. And so, he’s—
AMY GOODMAN: And there are civil lawsuits, though, now.
JULIE BROWN: Yeah, he isn’t affiliated with them. The two most recent ones were settled as soon as my story ran. There is one that he’s not a party to, that several of the girls are suing the U.S. government, hoping to overturn that plea agreement.