WASHINGTON -- Insisting that he got the best deal he could at the time, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta on Wednesday defended his handling of a sex-trafficking case involving now-jailed financier Jeffrey Epstein as he tried to stave off intensifying Democratic calls for his resignation.
In a nearly hourlong news conference, Acosta retraced the steps that federal prosecutors took in the case when he was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida a decade ago, insisting that "in our heart we were trying to do the right thing for these victims." He said prosecutors were working to avoid a more lenient arrangement that would have allowed Epstein to "walk free."
"We believe that we proceeded appropriately," he said, a contention challenged by critics who say Epstein's penalty was egregiously light.
The episode reignited this week when federal prosecutors in New York filed a new round of child sex-trafficking charges against the wealthy hedge-fund manager. And on Wednesday, a new accuser stepped forward to say Epstein raped her in his New York mansion when she was 15.
Jennifer Araoz, now 32, told Today that she never went to police because she feared retribution from the well-connected Epstein. She now has filed court papers in preparation for suing him.
While the handling of the case arose during Acosta's confirmation hearings, it has come under fresh and intense scrutiny after the prosecutors in New York filed their charges Monday, alleging that Epstein abused dozens of underage girls in the early 2000s, paying them hundreds of dollars in cash for massages, then molesting them at his homes in Florida and New York. Epstein has pleaded innocent to the charges. If convicted, he could be imprisoned for the rest of his life.
Acosta's presentation was an effort to push back against growing criticism of his work in a secret 2008 plea deal that let Epstein avoid federal prosecution on charges that he molested teenage girls. A West Palm Beach judge found this year that the deal had violated the Crime Victims' Rights Act because the victims were not informed or consulted.
In recent days, Acosta has weathered calls for his resignation from Democratic leaders, even as President Donald Trump has defended him. On Tuesday, Trump told reporters gathered at the White House that he felt "badly" for Acosta, but added that his administration would look into the handling of the matter "very carefully."
Acosta insisted that his office did the best it could under the circumstances a decade ago. He said state authorities had planned to go after Epstein with charges that would have resulted in no jail time until Acosta's office intervened and pressed for tougher consequences, a contention that is supported by the record. The alternative, he said, would have been for federal prosecutors to "roll the dice" and hope to win a conviction.
At the news conference Wednesday, Acosta said he decided to intervene in what had been a state case because Epstein was going to get away without any time behind bars. He said some of the victims were traumatized and refused to testify, and others actually exonerated Epstein.
"These cases, as I've said, are hard. They require a prosecutor to ask whether a plea that guarantees jail time and guarantees registration, to ask whether that plea versus going to trial," Acosta said, mentioning Epstein's registration as a sex offender. "How do you weigh those two if going to trial is viewed as a roll of the dice? The goal here was straightforward -- put Epstein behind bars, ensure that he registers as a sexual offender."
He explained the late notification of the victims by saying that it was unclear that Epstein would abide by the agreement and that prosecutors feared defense attorneys would use an effort by victims to recover restitution to undermine their credibility.
Acosta said that times have changed and that juries today are more understanding of victims in such cases. "Today our judges do not allow victim-shaming by defense attorneys," he said.
Epstein was given 13 months in a work-release program, which let him work outside the jail six days a week. Acosta said it was "entirely appropriate" to be angry about that leniency, but he blamed that on Florida authorities. "Everything the victims have gone through in these cases is horrific," he said, while repeatedly refusing to apologize to them.
"I think it's important to stand up for the prosecutors" in his old office, he said.
His account did not sit well with Barry Krischer, who was the Palm Beach County attorney during the case. Krischer, a Democrat, said Acosta "should not be allowed to rewrite history."
Acosta's south Florida office had gotten to the point of drafting an indictment that could have sent Epstein to federal prison for life. But it was never filed, leading to Epstein's guilty plea to two state prostitution-related charges. In addition to the work-release jail sentence, Epstein was required to make payments to victims and register as a sex offender.
Krischer said the federal indictment was "abandoned after secret negotiations between Mr. Epstein's lawyers and Mr. Acosta." He added: "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."
Acosta has said he welcomes the new case, and earlier defended himself on Twitter, crediting "new evidence and additional testimony" uncovered by prosecutors in New York for providing "an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice."
Trump typically gives his Cabinet secretaries the opportunity to defend themselves publicly in interviews and news conferences before deciding whether to pull the plug on them. He encouraged Acosta to hold Wednesday's news conference laying out his thinking and involvement in the plea deal, according to a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Early reaction in the White House appeared to be positive, with one official saying the performance was likely enough to buy Acosta more time unless questions about his part in the 2008 case linger in the news.
Trump has his own long personal history with Epstein, but has dissociated himself from Epstein, saying this week that the two had a falling out 15 or so years ago and haven't spoken since.
Acosta told reporters that his relationship with Trump remains "outstanding" but also noted that every member of Trump's Cabinet serves at the president's pleasure.
Acosta also denied that Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff, had suggested he be forced out.
Acosta has privately reached out to allies for help handling the public relations debacle and inquired about potential post-government work should he be forced out, according to two people familiar with the matter.
In a sign that congressional Democrats are seeking to increase pressure on Acosta, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, sent a letter to the labor secretary Wednesday afternoon, requesting that he testify before the committee later this month about his decision to authorize a nonprosecution agreement for Epstein.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., welcomed the testimony request, saying Acosta "has a disturbing record on sexual and human trafficking that stretches from the horribly permissive plea agreement he gave to Jeffrey Epstein, up to his time now as Labor Secretary."
Information for this article was contributed by Jill Colvin, Richard Lardner, Alan Fram, Zeke Miller, Darlene Superville and Curt Anderson of The Associated Press; and by Katie Rogers, Maggie Haberman and Peter Baker of The New York Times.
A Section on 07/11/2019
Print Headline: A different time, Acosta says of '08 Epstein deal