WASHINGTON — There was once a time - before the investigations, before the sexual abuse conviction — when rich and famous men loved to hang around with Jeffrey Epstein, a billionaire money manager who loved to party.
They visited his mansion in Palm Beach, Florida. They flew on his jet to join him at his private estate on the Caribbean island of Little Saint James. They even joked about his taste in younger women.
President Trump called Epstein a ‘‘terrific guy’’ in 2002, saying that ‘‘he’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.’’
Now, Trump is on the witness list in a Florida court battle over how federal prosecutors handled allegations that Epstein, 64, sexually abused more than 40 minor girls, most of them between the ages of 13 and 17. The lawsuit questions why Trump’s nominee for labor secretary, former Miami U.S. attorney Alexander Acosta, whose confirmation hearing is scheduled to begin Wednesday, cut a non-prosecution deal with Epstein a decade ago rather than pursuing a federal indictment that Acosta’s staff had advocated.
Epstein pleaded guilty to a Florida state charge of felony solicitation of underage girls in 2008 and served a 13-month jail sentence. Politicians who had accepted his donations, including former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, have scurried to give them back. (Harvard University kept a $6.5 million gift, saying it was ‘‘funding important research’’ in mathematics.)
But Epstein’s unusually light punishment — he was facing up to a life sentence had he been convicted on federal charges — has raised questions about how Acosta handled the case.
Former Palm Beach police chief Michael Reiter, whose department conducted the initial investigation into Epstein’s behavior, said in a civil lawsuit deposition that Epstein got off easy.
‘‘That wasn’t an appropriate resolution of this matter,’’ Reiter said.
Prosecutors in Acosta’s Miami office who had joined the FBI in the investigation concluded, according to documents produced by the U.S. attorney’s office, that Epstein, working through several female assistants, ‘‘would recruit underage females to travel to his home in Palm Beach to engage in lewd conduct in exchange for money. ... Some went there as much as 100 times or more.’’
Federal prosecutors detailed their findings in an 82-page prosecution memo and a 53-page indictment, but Epstein was never indicted. In 2007, Acosta signed a non-prosecution deal in which he agreed not to pursue federal charges against Epstein or four women who the government said procured girls for him.
‘‘This agreement will not be made part of any public record,’’ the deal between Epstein and Acosta says. The document was unsealed by a federal judge in a civil lawsuit in 2015.
In a ‘‘To whom it may concern’’ letter that he released to news organizations three years after the decision, Acosta said, ‘‘The bottom line is this: Mr. Jeffrey Epstein, a billionaire, served time in jail and is now a registered sex offender. He has been required to pay his victims restitution, though restitution clearly cannot compensate for the crime.’’
Acosta is Trump’s second nominee to be secretary of labor; the first, Andrew Puzder, withdrew last month after Senate Republicans questioned his past employment of an undocumented housekeeper.
In the 2011 letter explaining his decision in the Epstein case, Acosta said he backed off from pressing charges after ‘‘a year-long assault on the prosecution and the prosecutors’’ by ‘‘an army of legal superstars’’ who represented Epstein, including Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz and Kenneth Starr, who as independent counsel led the investigation that brought about President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
‘‘The defense strategy was not limited to legal issues,’’ Acosta wrote. ‘‘Defense counsel investigated individual prosecutors and their families, looking for personal peccadilloes that may provide a basis for disqualification.’’
Dershowitz said in an interview that no such effort to rattle the prosecutors ever took place. ‘‘That’s just dead wrong,’’ he said. ‘‘I would never participate in anything of that kind. Of course we investigated the witnesses but not Acosta’s deputies. That’s absurd.’’
In Florida, Trump is on the witness list in a civil case in which two attorneys accuse federal prosecutors of having deceived Epstein’s victims by failing to inform them that they would not charge Epstein.
Lawyers for the women say Acosta sought to keep the deal under wraps to avoid ‘‘the intense public criticism that would have resulted from allowing a politically-connected billionaire’’ to escape from federal prosecution.
Although Trump and Bill Clinton flew on Epstein’s plane and visited his homes, neither president has been accused of taking part in the sexual misdeeds. But lawyers for Epstein’s victims say Trump nonetheless may have useful information. Trump banned Epstein from his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach ‘‘because Epstein sexually assaulted an underage girl at the club,’’ Bradley Edwards, an attorney who represents three of the young women, said in court documents.
Lawyers involved with the various Epstein cases said there is virtually no chance that the president will be required to testify in a matter in which both sides agree his involvement was tangential.