(Updates with more background and comment from DOL spokesperson)
By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON, Feb 6 (Reuters) - A U.S. Justice Department office is investigating whether department attorneys committed professional misconduct in a criminal case involving a wealthy Florida financier accused of sex crimes, the department said in a letter to a senator released on Wednesday.
The investigation comes after the Miami Herald published a report looking at U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s role in negotiating a non-prosecution agreement for hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein, when Acosta was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
In a letter to Senator Ben Sasse, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd revealed that the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), a unit that looks into internal misconduct, “has now opened an investigation” into whether lawyers mishandled the Epstein settlement.
“OPR will thoroughly investigate the allegations of misconduct that have been raised and, consistent with its practice, will share its results with you at the conclusion of its investigation as appropriate,” Boyd said.
The letter does not mention Acosta by name. The Miami Herald reported that its investigation found that Acosta gave Epstein a preferential settlement that effectively shut down an FBI probe into Epstein’s crimes.
A Labor Department spokesperson said in a statement that Acosta “welcomes the OPR’s additional review of this matter.”
“For more than a decade, this prosecution has been reviewed in great detail by newspaper articles, television reports, books, and Congressional testimony,” the spokesperson said.
“Department of Justice leadership, likewise, reviewed the matter at the time, and the Department has continued to defend the Southern District of Florida’s actions across three administrations and several attorneys general on the grounds that the actions taken were in accordance with Department practices, procedures, and the law.”
The Miami Herald’s three-part series “Perversion of Justice” said Epstein was facing a federal indictment and possible life sentence for masterminding a sex scheme that targeted underage girls. Under the agreement with Acosta, Epstein agreed to plead guilty to felony prostitution in state court in exchange for not being prosecuted on federal sex trafficking charges.
His alleged co-conspirators were never prosecuted.
The investigation identified nearly 80 possible victims. Some of them said in interviews they felt betrayed by federal prosecutors, particularly after the deal was kept a secret from them so they could not raise objections before his sentencing.
Lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate have raised grave concerns about the lenient treatment Epstein received. Last year, some asked the Justice Department’s inspector general Michael Horowitz to investigate Acosta’s actions.
In a letter released late last month, Horowitz said his office cannot do its own probe because investigations of misconduct related to how department lawyers handle litigation and legal decisions can only be handled by the OPR.
Horowitz also urged Congress to change the law to expand his office’s jurisdiction, saying the limitations can help shield prosecutorial misconduct from review by an independent watchdog. (Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and David Alexander; editing by David Gregorio and Sonya Hepinstall)