A Florida judge ruled Thursday that federal prosecutors, led by a man who is now President Donald Trump's secretary of labor, broke the law when they signed a plea agreement with financier Jeffrey Epstein without notifying his sex abuse victims.
Epstein, 66, reached a nonprosecution deal in 2008 with then-Miami U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta's office to halt a federal sex abuse probe involving more than 30 teenage girls. Epstein could have faced a possible life sentence. Instead, he pleaded guilty to state charges, spent 13 months in jail and paid settlements to victims.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth A. Marra, in a 33-page ruling, said prosecutors violated the victims' rights by not informing them of the deal and instead sending a letter counseling them to have "patience."
"Particularly problematic was the Government's decision to conceal the existence of the [nonprosecution agreement] and mislead the victims to believe that federal prosecution was still a possibility," Marra wrote. "When the Government gives information to victims, it cannot be misleading."
A Department of Labor spokesperson released a statement following the judge's ruling.
"For more than a decade, the actions of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida in this case have been defended by the Department of Justice in litigation across three administrations and several attorneys general," it read. "The office's decisions were approved by departmental leadership and followed departmental procedures. This matter remains in litigation and, thus, for any further comment we refer you to the Department of Justice."
In his ruling, Marra said Epstein and others operated an international sex ring.
"Epstein and his co-conspirators knowingly traveled in interstate and international commerce to sexually abuse Jane Doe 1, Jane Doe 2 and others, they committed violations of not only Florida law, but also federal law," Marra wrote.
"In addition to his own sexual abuse of the victims, Epstein directed other persons to abuse the girls sexually...Epstein worked in concert with others to obtain minors not only for his own sexual gratification, but also for the sexual gratification of others."
A lawyer for Epstein did not immediately return requests for comment.
The Justice Department has opened a probe into how federal government lawyers handled the case, an official confirmed with NBC News earlier this month.
Brad Edwards, who represented several victims, applauded the ruling.
"Today's order represents long-overdue vindication for all of the victims of Mr. Epstein and his co-conspirators," Edwards said. "Unfortunately, this decision also highlights the failure of the United States Government to acknowledge its obvious wrongdoing. Rather than work to correct the injustices done to the victims, the Government spent 10 years defending its own improper conduct."
Lawyer Jeffrey Herman, who also represented women alleging they were abused by Epstein, called Mara's ruling a "step in the right direction."
Epstein — a wealthy money manager who was friends with the likes of Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Great Britain's Prince Andrew — has been dogged for years by allegations that he sexually abused dozens of teenage girls at his Palm Beach mansion and elsewhere in the early 2000s.
In December, he struck a last-minute deal to avoid a civil trial that would have allowed some of his victims to finally testify against him in open court.
The deal included a financial settlement, the details of which were kept confidential,NBC Miami reported. It also included an apology from Epstein to Edwards, who had accused Epstein of trying to ruin his reputation as retaliation for having represented the accusers.