RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Did Alex Acosta help his case? The labor secretary went in front of television cameras yesterday to defend his handling of a 2008 plea agreement. At the time, Acosta was the U.S. attorney in Florida. Multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein was accused of sex trafficking, and Acosta says he was about to escape accountability, so his office stepped in.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ALEX ACOSTA: The Palm Beach state attorney's office was ready to let Epstein walk free - no jail time; nothing. Prosecutors in my former office found this to be completely unacceptable, and they became involved.
MARTIN: They made a deal. Epstein would plead guilty to state charges, avoiding federal sex crime charges. He'd go to jail for 13 months, but he could leave during the day for work. Now, though, a former Palm Beach attorney who was in the office at the time says Acosta's recollection is wrong. His name is Barry Krischer, and he says state officials had prepared a lengthy indictment that was abandoned after secret negotiations between Epstein's lawyer and Acosta.
To sort through this, I'm joined by Joyce Vance. She's a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.
Thanks so much for being with us.
JOYCE VANCE: Good morning.
MARTIN: So this week, federal prosecutors in New York brought sex-trafficking charges against Epstein. Under his mandate at the time, did Alex Acosta have an obligation to do the same back in 2008?
VANCE: I think obligation might be the wrong way of looking at this. But as a prosecutor looking at the evidence he had available to him and that what we know now which is that they had drafted a 53-page indictment, the outcome of this case back in 2007 with a non-prosecution agreement that essentially let Acosta go to these very light state charges looks very questionable.
MARTIN: So let's get to this dispute in the facts because Acosta said if his office hadn't made the plea deal, Epstein could have walked free. He says his office intervened to get harsher charges than the state wanted. But in this statement released by Barry Krischer, the former state attorney in Palm Beach County, he says the state did have this very lengthy indictment ready and that it was the secret plea deal that Acosta helped broker that derailed that indictment. So how do we know who's telling the truth?
VANCE: You know, we don't know for certain. But the reality is that this was not a binary choice. It wasn't take the deal or walk away. If, for whatever reason, then U.S. Attorney Acosta felt like he didn't have sufficient evidence to go forward with a federal case, his choice was pretty simple, keep investigating. It's clear, and there's reporting from the Miami Herald, that the FBI was actually looking at an international sex-trafficking ring. You don't walk away from that investigation before it's complete.
MARTIN: We've got an interview elsewhere in the show with a man named Spencer Kuvin. He's an attorney who represented three victims in the original case against Epstein, and I want to play a clip of what he told me about watching Acosta's remarks yesterday.
SPENCER KUVIN: Literally, while I was watching it, I laughed out loud at a couple of points. You know, the victims that are being brought forward now by the Southern District in New York, these victims existed...
MARTIN: He's saying that the evidence is old, that this is the same evidence. Do we know if he's right?
VANCE: It appears that much of this evidence would have been available to investigators back in 2007, which I think buttresses that point about the choice to cut off the investigation as opposed to continuing the investigation. And this really makes - Secretary Acosta, yesterday, said how glad he was to see the New York investigation based on new evidence, and the reality is that that evidence would have been available to him back when he made the decision not to prosecute.
MARTIN: So, you know, if you were involved in this, what questions would you want answered right now? Where are you looking?
VANCE: Yeah. You know, look, I should start by saying I think it's always dangerous to second-guess prosecutors based on limited information. We don't know everything that they were looking at. But in this case, based upon what's become public, it does seem like the decision that was made in 2007 was not the correct one.
And so now we need to understand, why was this decision made in secrecy? Why were victims cut out of the deal - which whether technically required by DOJ policy at that point or not, they should have been involved. Why was there this cloak of secrecy when a 53-page indictment was drafted and ready to go?
MARTIN: Joyce Vance is a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.
Thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.
VANCE: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.