WASHINGTON — Labor Secretary R. Alexander Acosta is facing fresh calls to resign — and rising pressure from inside the Trump administration — over his role in brokering a lenient plea deal over child sex offenses for New York financier Jeffrey E. Epstein when he was a federal prosecutor in Miami more than a decade ago.
Acosta, 50, told a friend this week that the plea agreement, in which Epstein served 13 months after being accused of sexually abusing dozens of young women and underage girls, was the “toughest deal” available in a complex and difficult case. The prosecution, he said, would have stood a far better chance of succeeding in the state courts — the same argument he has been making for years.
“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 Tuesday on Twitter.
“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,” he continued. “Now that new evidence and additional testimony is available, the NY prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice.”
That is not likely to satisfy critics. “Mr. Acosta has a lot of explaining to do, and none of his public statements to date come anywhere close to providing a rational explanation,” said Jack Scarola, a Florida lawyer who represents several of the victims.
The indictment Monday of Epstein by the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Geoffrey S. Berman, on child sex trafficking charges — and a raid on the hedge fund billionaire’s mansion that uncovered a cache of lewd photographs — represents a grave threat to Acosta and an implicit rebuke of the deal he cut as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
Congress’s top Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, called for his resignation, as did the Miami Herald, which uncovered the details of the plea deal, which was initially kept secret from victims under the agreement between Acosta and one of Epstein’s lawyers, Jay Lefkowitz.
“If Acosta, when he was U.S. attorney in Miami, had shown an ounce of sympathy for the vulnerable girls Epstein sexually exploited, they would have had a powerful voice on their side,” the paper’s editors wrote. “If Acosta had not shown himself to be ethically challenged 10 years ago, we wouldn’t be calling for his resignation as U.S. secretary of labor now.”
For the moment, President Donald Trump supports Acosta, although two senior administration officials said that could quickly change if more damaging details emerged about the plea agreement.
Trump praised Acosta on Tuesday as “an excellent secretary of labor” as he met with the emir of Qatar, and added, “I do hear there were a lot of people involved in that decision, not just him,” a reference to the Epstein plea deal. But he said the White House would look into the matter “very carefully.”
Former law enforcement officials who referred the case to state and federal prosecutors in South Florida in 2006 praised the New York prosecutors for completing a job they said Acosta could not, or would not, do more than a decade ago.
“Thankfully, U.S. Attorney Berman and the other authorities in New York have the good judgment to investigate and prosecute Epstein in the way that should have occurred in Florida over a decade ago,” said Michael Reiter, the former chief who ran the Palm Beach Police Department at the time of the Epstein investigation.
The evidence against Epstein a decade ago in Florida was “overwhelming,” said Scarola, calling the terms of the nonprosecution agreement signed in secret by Acosta’s team “totally unjustifiable.”