Labor Secretary Acosta defends Epstein plea deal: 'Facts are being overlooked'

As U.S attorney in Florida, Alex Acosta secured a federal non-prosecution agreement in a plea deal with sex offender Epstein more than a decade ago, which critics have blasted as too lenient.
Image: Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta holds a press conference at the Department of Labor on July 10, 2019.
Labor Secretary Alex Acosta holds a press conference at the Department of Labor on July 10, 2019.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

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By Dartunorro Clark and Peter Alexander

Labor Secretary Alex Acosta defended his role on Wednesday in cutting a deal for sex offender Jeffrey Epstein more than a decade ago that critics have called too lenient. He signaled that he has no intention of resigning.

Acosta, who at the time served as the U.S attorney in south Florida, said in a news conference that his office intervened in the case after state prosecutors failed to secure a plea deal that would have resulted in jail time for Epstein and give justice to his victims.

"Times have changed, and coverage of this case has certainly changed," Acosta said, adding, "the facts are being overlooked."

“I wanted to help them, that is why we intervened, and that’s what the prosecutors of my office did," he said. "They insisted that he go to jail and put the world on notice that he was and is a sexual predator."

Acosta added: "Epstein's actions absolutely deserve a stiffer sentence."

Acosta secured a federal non-prosecution agreement with Epstein as part of the plea deal, which critics have blasted as too lenient.

"I think what they would find is that the office acted appropriately," Acosta said at the news conference when asked about the criticism. He also pushed back against an assessment that he violated the law by not informing Epstein's victims about the non-prosecution agreement.

Calling the case "complex," Acosta argued that he and the other federal prosecutors were following Justice Department policy. They waited until they secured the plea deal with a provision that would require Epstein to pay restitution to his victims before notifying them, he said, in case the deal fell apart and the defense tried to use any payments as a way to undermine the victims' credibility.

The labor secretary's role in the administration has come under scrutiny after Epstein, 66, was arrested over the weekend and charged Monday with sex trafficking of minors in New York and Florida from at least 2002 through 2005. Epstein has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Federal prosecutors in New York allege the politically connected financier, who has socialized with Donald Trump, former President Bill Clinton and Britain's Prince Andrew, sexually abused dozens of minors and paid his victims to recruit others, allowing him to build a vast network of girls to exploit.

On Wednesday, Acosta also said that he welcomed the actions by New York prosecutors, calling it “the absolutely right thing to do,” and added that if Epstein committed crimes in other states, additional charges should be brought.

“He’s a bad man and he needs to be put away,” Acosta said. “There are multiple jurisdictions, whether federal or state, that he is going to have to answer to.”

Acosta shared an affidavit filed by the career prosecutor in a civil matter related to the Epstein case in which the prosecutor discussed the challenges faced in the criminal case, including victims being unwilling to testify, making the case difficult to present to a jury. He claimed an affidavit from the FBI case agent corroborated the prosecutor's account.

Despite his vigorous defense of his actions, Acosta did not say whether he would cut the same deal today.

"Today's world treats victims very, very differently," he said. "Today's world does not allow some of the victim-shaming that could have taken place at trial."

Acosta added, "Everything that the victims have gone through in these cases is horrific and their response is entirely justified. At the same time, I think it's important to stand up for the prosecutors of my former office and make clear that what they were trying to do was help these victims."

Acosta also balked at the insinuation that Epstein’s wealth and political connections influenced his office’s decision making as U.S attorney, saying that they stayed true to the terms of the agreement despite several appeals to the Justice Department by Epstein's attorneys.

Epstein pleaded guilty in 2008 to procuring a person under 18 for prostitution and felony solicitation of prostitution, which required him to register as a sex offender and serve about a year in a Florida county jail. He was able to leave almost daily for work, and was allowed to have his own private security detail behind bars.

Acosta maintains the arrangement they worked out with Epstein helped pressure him into pleading guilty to state charges and having to register as a sex offender. The labor secretary defended his handling of the case on Tuesday as well, and praised federal prosecutors in New York for the new charges against Epstein.

"The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific, and I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence," Acosta wrote in a series of tweets.

"With the evidence available more than a decade ago, federal prosecutors insisted that Epstein go to jail, register as a sex offender and put the world on notice that he was a sexual predator," Acosta wrote. "Now that new evidence and additional testimony is available, the NY prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice."

Former Florida state attorney Barry Krischer, however, blasted Acosta in a statement on Wednesday following the secretary’s press conference, calling Acosta’s recollection “completely wrong.”

“Federal prosecutors do not take a back seat to state prosecutors. That’s not how the system works in the real world,” Krischer said.

Krischer claimed that his office conducted a complete investigation, which prompted a grand jury to produce a single felony indictment of soliciting prostitution. He also claimed that Acosta’s office produced a 53-page indictment, which was subsequently abandoned after “secret negotiations between Mr. Epstein’s lawyers and Mr. Acosta.”

“If Mr. Acosta was truly concerned with the State’s case and felt he had to rescue the matter, he would have moved forward with the 53-page indictment that his own office drafted. Instead, Mr. Acosta brokered a secret plea deal that resulted in a Non-Prosecution Agreement in violation of the Crime Victim’s Rights Act,” he said.

“Mr. Acosta should not be allowed to rewrite history.”

Acosta's comments came after Democratic leaders in Congress and several Democratic presidential candidates called on him to resign his Cabinet post following the latest charges against Epstein.

Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee sent a letter to Acosta on Wednesday inviting him to testify at a hearing July 23 about his role in the non-prosecution agreement for Epstein, as well as a district judge's ruling in February that Acosta and other federal prosecutors violated the law by not notifying the victims about the agreement.

Democratic lawmakers Wednesday also requested a briefing from the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility on its investigation into the federal prosecutors' actions in the case.

At Wednesday's press conference, Acosta hinted that he would not resign over the criticisms about the handling of the case and shot down suggestions that his statements were sending a message to the president.

“I’m not here to send any signal to the president," Acosta said. "If, at some point, the president decides that I am not the best person to do this job, I respect that — that is his choice. I serve at the pleasure of the president."

Trump spoke to Acosta by phone Tuesday afternoon and urged him to hold the news conference to answer reporters’ questions about the case, a person familiar with the matter said.

The president also defended Acosta on Tuesday and said that he had a "falling out" with Epstein a number of years ago.

“I had a falling out with him a long time ago,” Trump told reporters at the White House about his relationship with Epstein. “I don’t think I’ve spoken to him for 15 years.”

“I was not a fan of his. That I can tell you,” Trump added. He did not respond to a question about what caused the falling out.

The president praised Acosta on Tuesday for his job performance.

"He's been just an excellent secretary of labor," Trump said, before suggesting that multiple officials, in addition to Acosta, were responsible for how the earlier case turned out — and that they probably "would wish they'd maybe done it a different way."

"If you go back and look at everybody else’s decisions, whether it’s a U.S. attorney, or an assistant U.S. attorney, or a judge, you go back 12 or 15 years ago or 20 years ago and look at their past decisions, I would think you would probably find that they would wish they’d maybe done it a different way," Trump said.

"I do hear there were a lot of people involved in that decision, not just him," he said. "You’re talking about a long time ago. And again it was a decision made, I think, not by him but by a lot of people."

Trump added that he felt “very badly” for Acosta.

Adam Edelman contributed.