Labor Secretary Alex Acosta defends role in plea deal
WASHINGTON – Brushing aside calls for his resignation, embattled Labor Secretary Alex Acosta on Wednesday defiantly defended his role in a plea agreement with sex-trafficking defendant Jeffrey Epstein more than a decade ago, saying the multimillionaire would have avoided jail time without the deal.
“The goal here was straightforward – put Epstein behind bars,” Acosta said at a nearly hourlong news conference.
“We believe we proceeded appropriately.”
Acosta’s role in negotiating the plea deal with Epstein is again under scrutiny following Epstein’s arrest Saturday on charges of sex trafficking girls as young as 14.
Epstein, 66, pleaded not guilty in a Manhattan federal court on Monday. The indictment against him alleges that he “sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls at his homes” in New York City and Palm Beach, Florida.
In November, the Miami Herald published an in-depth look at plea negotiations in 2007 that showed Acosta – then the top federal prosecutor in Miami – was directly involved in cutting a deal with Epstein’s lawyers in the earlier case.
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Under that deal, the wealthy and influential hedge fund manager agreed to plead guilty to two state felony prostitution charges, pay restitution to his victims, register as a sex offender and serve 13 months in county jail.
But Epstein was able to serve much of that sentence from his Palm Beach office as part of a work-release program. He had faced a possible life sentence if convicted on the federal charges looming over him.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Acosta insisted the plea deal — and his role in it — has been mischaracterized.
“Facts are important, and facts are being overlooked,” Acosta said.
Acosta said that, under his leadership, the U.S. attorney’s office stepped into the case only after a state grand jury in Palm Beach, Florida, brought the initial charges against Epstein. But he said state prosecutors were prepared to offer Epstein a deal that would let him avoid jail time and would not have required him to register as a sex offender or pay restitution to his victims.
“The Palm Beach state attorney’s office was ready to let Epstein walk free,” Acosta said.
Federal prosecutors “found this to be completely unacceptable,” he said, so his office decided to intervene.
“We did what we did because wanted to see Epstein go to jail,” Acosta said. “He needed to go to jail.”
Acosta praised prosecutors in New York for bringing the latest charges against Epstein, saying they provide an opportunity “to more fully bring Epstein to justice.”
“This is a very, very good thing,” he said of the New York case. “His acts are despicable. … He’s a bad man, and he needs to be put away.”
Acosta declined to say whether he has any regrets about the earlier plea agreement. Nor did he apologize to Epstein’s victims. Acosta insisted his actions and those by other prosecutors in his office were intended to help those victims.
Following Epstein’s arrest last week, top Democrats in Congress called for Acosta to resign because of his role in arranging the plea agreement. Others stepped forward after Wednesday’s news conference and called for his resignation.
“Secretary Acosta had a chance to do right by Jeffrey Epstein’s victims. He failed,” said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I. “Today’s press conference doesn’t change that. The only appropriate thing for him to do now is to resign.”
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President Donald Trump defended Acosta at the White House on Tuesday and called him an “excellent” Labor secretary.
“I feel very badly actually for Secretary Acosta because I’ve known him as being somebody that works so hard and has done such a good job,” Trump told reporters.
But Trump said he would review the situation “very closely.”
Acosta declined to say whether Trump encouraged him to hold the news conference and defend his actions. But, he said, “my relationship with the president is outstanding. He has, I think, very publicly made clear that I’ve got (his) support.”
Contributing: William Cummings