Under pressure to resign, U.S. Labor Secretary Alex Acosta pushed back Wednesday against assertions that he negotiated a “sweetheart deal” years ago in South Florida with accused Palm Beach pedophile Jeffrey Epstein and cast himself not as a doormat for a wealthy sex offender but as a champion for dozens of abused teenage girls.
Acosta, who was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida when the office set aside a prepared but never filed 53-page indictment over a series of months in 2007-2008, was unrepentant during an hourlong news conference called at the behest of President Donald Trump.
He did not apologize or take any personal responsibility for allowing Epstein to plead guilty to lesser state prostitution charges. And he did not quit.
Acosta said going to trial then would have been a “roll of the dice” despite the existence of three dozen victims. Acosta argued that the Palm Beach state attorney complicated any federal case by previously pursuing only a misdemeanor charge and a fine against Epstein.
“Simply put, the Palm Beach State Attorney’s Office was ready to let Epstein walk free, no jail time, nothing. Prosecutors in my Florida office found this to be completely unacceptable, and they became involved,” Acosta said.
The former Palm Beach state attorney, Barry Krischer, promptly issued a statement accusing Acosta of rewriting history.
“Federal prosecutors do not take a backseat to state prosecutors. That’s not how the system works in the real world,” Krischer wrote.
Acosta has been under intense pressure following Epstein’s arrest over the weekend in New Jersey. Epstein, who has opulent homes around the world, including what’s reputedly one of the largest private residences in Manhattan, had just arrived on his private jet from Paris. In the New York indictment unsealed Monday, prosecutors allege he preyed on dozens of teenage girls from 2002 to 2005 in New York and Palm Beach — similar to the allegations reviewed a dozen years ago by Acosta.
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In her year-long investigation of Palm Beach multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein, Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown tracked down more than 60 women who said they were victims of abuse and revealed the full story behind the sweetheart deal cut by Epstein’s powerhouse legal team.
Since the Herald published ‘Perversion of Justice’ in November 2018, a federal judge ruled the non-prosecution agreement brokered by then South Florida U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta was illegal, Epstein was arrested on sex trafficking charges in New York state, Acosta resigned as U.S. Secretary of Labor, and Epstein killed himself in his Manhattan jail cell.
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According to court records and victim statements, Epstein ran what amounted to a sexual pyramid scheme. He dispatched recruiters to entice underage girls to come to his waterfront Palm Beach estate to give him nude massages, which often led to unwanted sexual assaults. He paid the girls — and offered them more if they recruited other girls to come to his home.
In a letter Monday to the judge presiding over Epstein’s arraignment, Geoffrey S. Berman, the top federal prosecutor in New York, referred to Epstein as a “serial sexual predator.”
Acosta has been accused of kowtowing to the politically connected hedge fund manager, who served only 13 months of a potential 18-month sentence in Palm Beach County and was allowed generous work release privileges despite rules barring work release for sex offenders. Epstein’s valet would pick him up at the stockade and drive him to his downtown West Palm Beach office, where the businessman could entertain guests.
The Department of Justice is reviewing Acosta’s handling of the non-prosecution agreement. A Miami federal judge ruled this year that Acosta’s office violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, a law intended to preserve victims’ rights, when he agreed to keep the deal secret from the girls Epstein allegedly abused.
But Acosta said Wednesday that, due to provisions for victims’ restitution in the deal, sealing the agreement was the best way to ensure that his victims wouldn’t be accused of financial motivations had Epstein decided to go to trial.
After it was signed, the agreement was subsequently weakened by the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office, Acosta contends.
He added: “The work release was complete B.S.”
In his statement after Acosta’s news conference, Krischer declared: “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 Victims’ Rights Act.”
Epstein, who faces up to 45 years in prison if convicted of the newly filed charges in New York, has pleaded not guilty.
Acosta’s fate became one of the many controversies surrounding the Trump White House late last year after the Miami Herald published a series, Perversion of Justice, describing the brazenness of Epstein’s behavior, interviewing victims for the first time, and filling in details of how the plea deal was negotiated in secret.
Back in late 2007, Acosta met privately with Epstein attorney Jay Lefkowitz at a West Palm Beach Marriott to discuss Epstein’s non-prosecution agreement. Following the meeting, Lefkowitz sent Acosta an email thanking him for “the commitment you made.”
“You ... assured me that your office would not ... contact any of the identified individuals, potential witnesses or potential civil claimants and the respective counsel in this matter,’’ Lefkowitz wrote. The email seems to contradict Acosta’s argument Wednesday that he kept the agreement quiet for the benefit of the victims.
Most of Epstein’s accusers learned about the plea arrangement after he was already serving his short sentence.
In its investigation, the Miami Herald identified as many as 80 alleged victims who say they were abused by Epstein. The U.S. Attorney in New York has said there could be hundreds of victims in New York, South Florida and elsewhere.
The Herald’s series spurred outrage over Epstein’s deal, which was only lightly discussed during Acosta’s confirmation hearing in 2017.
Polaris, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline for the United States, on Wednesday called the handling of Epstein’s case “tragic.”
Most of the candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination have called on Acosta to resign, as have Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And shortly before Acosta spoke to reporters Wednesday, House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings announced that he had sent a letter inviting Acosta to testify during a July 23 hearing delving into his actions on the Epstein case in South Florida.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a South Florida Democrat who sits on the committee, subsequently issued a statement saying that “Secretary Acosta has a disturbing record on sexual and human trafficking that stretches ... up to his time now as Labor Secretary.”
Acosta’s news conference was an unusually high-profile affair for what is otherwise a low-key office. Two dozen Department of Labor staffers stood watch over a wood-paneled press briefing room inside the agency’s headquarters before it began inside the Department of Labor Building.
Acosta was not only defending his reputation, but also his place in Trump’s Cabinet. The president on Tuesday praised his performance on the job when asked at the White House whether he still supports his labor secretary, but he also cautioned that his administration is looking at the Epstein plea deal.
Acosta said he had since spoken to Trump, who told him he continues to have the president’s support. Afterward, on Capitol Hill, Trump’s chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, told reporters that Acosta “did exactly what he needed to do” during his news conference and dismissed reports that he’d pushed to have Acosta ousted.
A White House official told the Herald that Trump encouraged Acosta to conduct the news conference and defend his record amid concerns within the administration over the secretary’s ability to ride out the storm.
At the Department of Labor, Acosta largely focused his comments on the complications presented by intervening in a state case, and on the differences he said exist between the legal system a decade ago and now.
“Today, our judges do not allow victim shaming by defense attorneys. I have viewed the victim interviews. They are hard to watch,” Acosta said. “I know that my former colleagues, the men and women of my office, wanted to help them. I wanted to help them. That is why we intervened.”
Acosta said he does not view Epstein’s victims as prostitutes, despite the agreement that allowed the wealthy financier to plead guilty to felony state solicitation charges. But he declined to apologize to any of Epstein’s victims, and said it’s difficult to go back and question whether he would have done anything differently.
He also said that his breakfast meeting with Lefkowitz in October 2007 was just a casual get-together and came after the plea deal had been negotiated, despite the subsequent communications.
“The goal here was straightforward: Put Epstein behind bars, ensure he registered as a sexual offender, provide victims with a means to seek restitution and protect the public by putting them on notice that a sexual predator is in their midst,” he said.
In fact, Epstein was classified as a sex offender, not a sexual predator, which would have imposed harsher restrictions.
He once told the New York Post: “I am not a sexual predator, I am an offender. It’s the difference between a murderer and a person who steals a bagel.”
Miami Herald investigative reporters Julie K. Brown and Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report.