ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A federal judge has ruled that Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta broke the law in 2008 along with other prosecutors. At the time, Acosta was the U.S. attorney in Miami. He and his team reached a plea deal with hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein, who was accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls. The judge ruled that Acosta illegally hid that deal from Epstein's victims. Julie Brown is an investigative reporter at the Miami Herald. She's part of a team that broke the story in November that federal prosecutors collaborated with Epstein's lawyers on this deal. Welcome.
JULIE BROWN, BYLINE: Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: You've been covering this case from the beginning. Give us an overview of what Jeffrey Epstein is accused of doing.
BROWN: Well, Jeffrey Epstein is a multimillionaire financier who had a lot of politically connected friends. He owned homes in Manhattan, in Palm Beach, New Mexico, and he owns his own island. And he essentially came up with this sex operation where he would recruit girls - underage girls in Palm Beach, have them come to his home for a massage. Ostensibly that's what they were being asked to do, but he molested them. And authorities suspect that he molested hundreds of girls over a five- or six-year period in Palm Beach alone and possibly operated an international sex-trafficking organization around the world.
SHAPIRO: You say that's when investigators suspect. They don't know for sure because the investigation was cut short by the plea deal that the current labor secretary reached with Epstein. You broke this story in a major investigation last year. The headline was, "Cops Worked To Put Serial Sex Abuser In Prison. Prosecutors Worked To Cut Him A Break." And now this judge has ruled that the prosecutors actually broke the law. Explain why.
BROWN: Well, under federal laws, there is an act which gives crime victims certain rights. Among them, they have the right to notification of a plea bargain. They have a right to confer with prosecutors. They should be notified of sentencings in a timely fashion. And none of these things happened. And not only did they not notify the victims, but they deliberately worked with Epstein's lawyers to conceal this. They kept their whole arrangement confidential and sealed it so that by the time these girls - you know, these were young girls who were the victims - found out about it, Epstein had already been sentenced and sent to the county jail.
SHAPIRO: Now, this plea deal not only shut out the victims. It also shut down the investigation into whether there were other victims, into the role of accomplices. It granted immunity to any potential co-conspirators. So what does this latest ruling from the judge mean for that agreement?
BROWN: Well, that's a good question. This has never really happened in such a stunning fashion. The Crime Victims' Rights Act, when it's been found that it's been violated - there's an ample opportunity to remedy it. But this has been going on for 11 years, so you know, this is unchartered territory as far as what's going to be done. The judge has left open the door to the possibility that he could void this entire agreement although he did not come to a conclusion on that. He instead gave both the government and the victims' attorneys 15 days to confer with each other in hopes of, I guess, reaching some kind of a settlement.
SHAPIRO: Now, one really remarkable part of this story is that the prosecutor at the center of the case, Alexander Acosta, remains in President Trump's cabinet as labor secretary. What is he saying about this?
BROWN: He's really not saying a whole lot. He issued a statement yesterday that basically said that this agreement had been reviewed and approved at all levels of government. But I'm not even sure how much other people in the government knew how much this case was hidden. I think that a lot of evidence has come forward since it was signed showing exactly how they worked together with Epstein's attorneys really essentially working against the interests of the victims here whom they were supposed to protect.
SHAPIRO: You mentioned that Epstein has a lot of politically connected friends. Those friends include President Trump, former President Bill Clinton. Do you think his powerful connections had anything to do with the extraordinary way his case was handled?
BROWN: Well, it's hard to say exactly who was pulling the strings. Keep in mind Acosta is a Republican. The lawyers that Epstein hired were all Republican. But as I always say, I think that sexual abuse doesn't discriminate based on political party. This had to do with power and money more than it had to do with politics, I think.
SHAPIRO: Julie Brown is an investigative reporter at the Miami Herald. Thanks for speaking with us.
BROWN: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: And this afternoon, President Trump was asked if he had any concerns about Secretary Acosta's handling of the case. Here's what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRES DONALD TRUMP: I really don't know too much about it. I know he's done a great job as labor secretary. And that seems like a long time ago. But I know he's been a fantastic labor secretary.