While serving as the U.S. Attorney for Florida’s Southern District in 2007, current secretary of labor Alexander Acosta cut a deal with Jeffrey Epstein, a billionaire Wall Street Hedge-fund manager, and orchestrator of a child sex trafficking scheme.
Though Epstein had been accused of sexually abusing over 100 underage girls, Acosta agreed to a deal that allowed Epstein – an associate of powerful figures like Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, among others – to serve only 18 months in prison and register as a sex offender. While he did register, Epstein spent only 13 months in prison and received a free pass allowing him to leave the premises for 16 hours per day.
Acosta’s decisions in the Epstein case have come under increased scrutiny recently following a scathing expose by the Miami Herald that suggests he helped cover up the extent of Epstein’s crimes and silenced the voices of his many victims.
President Trump nominated Acosta for Secretary of Labor in 2017. During the confirmation hearing, Acosta was questioned by Senator Tim Kaine about his decision not to federally prosecute Epstein. Despite this questioning, Acosta was confirmed.
Investigative journalist Conchita Sarnoff first broke the Epstein story to The Daily Beast in 2010. What became a huge story started on a trip to Mexico researching drug cartels, Sarnoff told The Globe Post. Once she met with a Mexican official, who used phrase Sarnoff could not forget: “the Americans are stealing children.”
On returning from Mexico, Sarnoff began researching human trafficking between the U.S. and Mexico and within the U.S. itself. It was then that she came across the court documents of Jeffrey Epstein’s case, which she began to follow in depth. In the process, Sarnoff has become an advocate against child trafficking and founded the Alliance to Rescue Victims of Trafficking (ATRVT) in Washington, D.C. in 2013.
Twenty-one million people are victims of human trafficking worldwide as of 2017, and the illicit industry generates $150.2 billion each year. Sixty-eight percent of victims are forced into labor, both domestic and non-domestic. Yet sexual exploitation, while it impacts fewer people, is the most lucrative, generating $99 billion per year, with an annual profit of $21,800 per victim as of 2017, according to a report by Global Financial Integrity.
Victims tend to be a community’s most vulnerable — women, children, refugees, and the poor. Victims tend to come from developing countries and are transported to developed ones, such as wealthier European nations and the United States. 8,759 cases of human trafficking were reported within the U.S. in 2017, encompassing 10,615 victims and 1,698 trafficking businesses, according to the Polaris Project. Victims within the U.S. were largely Latino women; the most common types of trafficking were escort services, domestic work, and illicit massage services. California, Texas and Florida have the highest number of reported cases for 2018 (California has 706, Texas has 455 and Florida has 367).
The Globe Post interviewed Sarnoff about her book Trafficking, the foundation, and Epstein’s case in the aftermath of #Metoo movement against sexual assault, and the cultural norms that permit it.
Q: You broke the story of Jeffrey Epstein in 2010 and wrote a book about the case based on your reporting from 2006 onward. Can you tell us a bit about the book and how you started the line of research?
Sarnoff: I published the book in 2016, Trafficking, and the story is about a billionaire pedophile, [a] trafficker, more importantly, a human trafficker who used his power and his money and influence and political connections in order to basically get away with a sweetheart deal from the Department of Justice and avoid jail time. And this is a man who abused over 100 underage girls, who transported some of them on his private jet, who pimped them out to politicians, business leaders and political figures, including one academic figure, Alan Dershowitz, who according to one victim —Virginia Emma Louise Roberts — was raped by him when she was an underage girl.
So that’s what this is about, this is about, well, influence peddling at the highest echelons of government and how the Department of Justice, given Epstein’s influential friends, turned the other way and instead of prosecuting him under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which enacted under President [Bill] Clinton in the year 2000, they were according to labor secretary Acosta “assaulted by the defense team” and forced to lessen the indictment and this man was given a non-prosecution agreement for two counts of solicitation of prosecution with a minor, which means that the DOJ identified the underage girl as prostitute, which is not only unheard of, there is no such thing as an underage prostitute.
So why did the Department of Justice in Washington agree in 2007 — George W. Bush was President at the time, the Attorney General was Michael MacKasey — why did the Department of Justice agree and overturn and overpower Acosta, who was the prosecutor in Florida in Palm Beach in the southern district? Why did they overturn and overpower the current labor secretary’s original decision and original indictment? That’s the question, that is the important question.
So it’s a pretty outstanding case only because it set precedent. The reason this case is so important is not only because of the personalities protecting the predator but because this case set precedent: now all the others traffickers can cite the Epstein case in order to get off and in order to receive a minimum prosecution.
Q: Now that we are supposedly living in a #Metoo era, do you think that the public will view this case, or subsequent cases, differently?
Sarnoff: Not only that, people are no longer fearful of a Clinton presidency, number one. Number two, I think people understand quite well what the Clintons, basically, what they’ve done and haven’t done. How they’ve committed multiple crimes that are still being questioned in terms of their foundation [which is] practically defunct.
The situation with Anthony Weiner and the 30 thousand emails that were transferred to his computer – how on earth did that get there?
So because of all the ongoing legal ramifications of Hillary Clinton’s and Bill Clinton’s administrations…and the fact that she lost the presidency twice and she was involved in so much scandal as was Bill Clinton that they are – I think the media is taking a wider look, a much broader look, into their history and into their background.
Not only did Epstein a donate to Hillary’s [first] campaign after he was arrested and indicted but she never returned [the donation]. He also invested 4 million dollars to President Clinton to start the Clinton Global Initiative. And through the principle procurer [of underage girls] Ghislaine Maxwell, he donated money to the Foundation.
And so I thought ‘this is bigger than the Lewinsky affair and Watergate’ because this is corruption at the highest levels of government. This is about the protection of a predator who did not merit protection in the least, and I realized [Epstein] was associated with a man named Leslie Wexner who actually funded his first business. Leslie Wexner is the founder of L Brands – they own Victoria Secret, the Limited, the Gap, and coincidentally Epstein was using and luring the underage girls by promising them modeling jobs, and jobs, at Victoria Secret. So he used that company as part of his lure to manipulate them and to abuse them sexually. As you start investigating one thing leads to another – it’s a puzzle and you have to put all the pieces together. So I did.
My book was an overall reportage [of the case]. I strongly believe that the more people write about it, the better. It raises awareness, it allows us to create the kinds of policies that are necessary to protect at-risk victims and to promote policy and to promote research and so I thought I have to do something else that is rather more meaningful and more long-lasting. So I started a foundation in October 2013, the Alliance to Rescue Victims of Trafficking, with like-minded friends and colleagues. Through the foundation we started to do more research, create activities and events [and] the issue has since soared. It has become part of the national consciousness.
I [have taught] and continue to lecture across the states and wherever else they will have me and [this] is a very, very important and worthy issue to help create the kind of policies that will prevent traffickers from continuing to abuse populations.
Q: On the Alliance to Rescue Victims of Trafficking website, D.C. is listed as having the second highest number of trafficking victims. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, the number of trafficking cases has decreased since 2012. What can you tell us about the D.C. as a site of trafficking?
Sarnoff: You’ve got a huge diplomatic community who is immune to any prosecution, and you’ve got a lot of underage kids that are being trafficked to these embassies and to these diplomats and that, of course, is being not only under-reported, it’s unreported, because there isn’t anything that they can do to those embassies because they don’t belong to the United States and because diplomats have immunity, foreign diplomats have immunity in the United States. So, I think there is that, I think there is limited training and education.
In spite of what may be wrong with the Trump Administration, the Trump Administration, and specifically Ivanka Trump, has been very vocal and they have really advanced and been highly targeted in protecting victims. The Fighting Online Sex Trafficking Act [FOSTA] and the Senate version [SESTA] – two bills passed, one by the House one by the Senate – that was actually enacted under President Trump and it’s a critical piece of legislation because it allows victims and it allows children who have been abused to sue websites and that is why Backpage.com was shut down and also the men who founded Backpage were arrested and so as a result of that. If you are Craigslist or Backpage or Myspace or any of these online sights and you are prostituting children not only will the government shut you down, you are liable for untold amounts of money for having committed a crime.
Q: Where do you Alliance to Rescue Victims of Trafficking heading? What are your goals for the foundation?
Sarnoff: I would like us to be a much more vocal foundation in the space of public policy, and I would like to accomplish our number one goal which is to open a safe house for trafficked girls in Washington, D.C. and then from there, once that model is successful, I’d like to continue to expand and open safe houses across the country. That’s where I see us going — providing not only victim services through partnerships and alliances but also providing research and tools and resources to legislators.