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Justice Dept to take a closer look at Jeffrey Epstein's plea deal

The Justice Department is prepared to take a closer look at Jeffrey Epstein's plea deal. This is of particular interest to Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta.
A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty)
A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

Jeffrey Epstein, a politically connected multi-millionaire, was accused of sexually abusing dozens of teenage girls in the early 2000s. A federal criminal investigation into his alleged activities raised the prospect of Epstein spending the rest of his life behind bars, but his high-profile legal team -- which featured Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr -- were able to strike a plea deal.

And what a deal it was. Epstein ended pleading guilty to a state charge of soliciting sex from a minor in 2008, which led to an 18-month sentence. He was released after 13 months -- during which time he had been permitted to leave the prison and go to work during much of the day -- and then went back to living the high life.

How in the world did Epstein get such a deal given the number of his alleged underage victims? It's a question many have asked of late, and the best answers could probably come from the U.S. Attorney who signed off on the deal.

His name is Alex Acosta. If his name sounds familiar, it's because he's Donald Trump's Secretary of Labor.

With this in mind, NBC News reported yesterday that the Justice Department has agreed to investigate how the Epstein case was handled.

An investigation by The Miami Herald said that Acosta helped engineer the deal involving only state charges and agreed that it would be kept secret from other victims until it was presented in court, denying them a chance to object. The newspaper's reporting led members of Congress to seek a Justice Department investigation. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., called the Epstein plea deal an "epic miscarriage of justice."On Thursday, the Justice Department notified Sasse that the department's Office of Professional Responsibility "has now opened an investigation into allegations that Department attorneys may have committed professional misconduct in the manner in which the Epstein criminal matter was resolved." The letter does not mention Acosta by name.

There's nothing to suggest this new review might lead to new criminal penalties against Epstein. That said, this scrutiny might finally shed light on why an accused rapist was able to strike such an extraordinary deal -- and what role a current Trump cabinet secretary played in making that happen.

As for Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), much of the coverage yesterday focused on the Nebraska Republican, who chairs a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight panel, and who contacted the Justice Department in December about how the Epstein case was handled.

That said, it's worth emphasizing that Sasse wasn't alone. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), among several other Florida Democrats, also pushed the DOJ to scrutinize what transpired.

What's more, there are some lingering concerns about whether the investigation will bear fruit. The matter is reportedly in the hands of the Office of Professional Responsibility, which doesn't have a great reputation for transparency, and which isn't altogether independent, the way the inspector general's office is.

In the last Congress, the House approved a bill to expand the powers of inspectors general. To date, the issue has not been taken up by the Senate.