U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta resigned July 12 amid a rising clamor for his ouster over an unusual bargain he negotiated as a Federal prosecutor in Miami with a man who last week was charged with sex-trafficking in Manhattan.
His exit came just four days after the arrest of hedge-fund magnate Jeffrey Epstein for the trafficking of minors as young as 14 brought heightened scrutiny to the deal Mr. Acosta brokered as U.S. Attorney in Miami with Mr. Epstein on 2008 for similar charges.
Dumped by Trump?
Initially, President Trump backed Mr. Acosta staying on. Press reports quoted anonymous White House sources claiming that he had fallen out of favor because he was not moving fast enough with the Trump deregulation agenda.
On July 10, Mr. Acosta took defended himself in a lengthy televised press conference and released several documents meant to justify his actions back in 2008 out of concern that state officials were mishandling their case against Mr. Epstein.
“Simply put, the Palm Beach State Attorney’s Office was ready to let Epstein walk free, no jail time, nothing. Prosecutors in my former office found this to be completely unacceptable,” he told reporters.
After Mr. Acosta’s press conference, Barry Krischer, the former State Attorney for Palm Beach, contradicted the Labor Secretary’s account.
He said in a statement, “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.”
That statement came as legal experts began to raise additional questions about Mr. Acosta’s credibility.
House Sought Action
On July 11, New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell called for Mr. Acosta’s impeachment. House Democrats also demanded a briefing from Justice Department officials and their own access to documents related to the Epstein plea deal.
Writing to U.S. Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, the Democrats wanted access within 14 days to all the agency’s documents leading up to Mr. Epstein's non-prosecution immunity agreement and any other internal files covering Mr. Acosta’s job performance as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted July 9, a day after the charges against Mr. Epstein were announced, that Mr. Acosta “must step down” because as “U.S. Attorney, he engaged in an unconscionable agreement” with Mr. Epstein that was “kept secret from courageous, young victims preventing them from seeking justice.” She noted that Mr. Trump was aware of the controversy when he nominated Mr. Acosta.
The President initially defended Mr. Acosta to reporters, saying, “I can tell you that for two and a half years, he has been just an excellent Secretary of Labor.”
But by then, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine and several other Democratic members of Congress had already called for Mr. Acosta’s resignation. The Department of Labor and the Department of Justice are the Federal government’s lead agencies responsible for enforcing the laws against human-trafficking.
Probing Prior to Charges
In February, following a request from congressional Democrats and Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, the DOJ announced its Office of Professional Responsibility would open a probe into Mr. Acosta’s actions in the Epstein case.
Mr. Epstein was apprehended July 6 at Teterboro Airport by FBI agents after his private jet returned from Paris. The 66-year-old is being held in the Metropolitan Detention Center in lower Manhattan on charges that could send him to prison for 45 years, according to Geoffrey S. Berman, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Federal prosecutor Alex Rossmiller disclosed at a July 8 court hearing that in a raid on Mr. Epstein’s Upper East Side mansion, FBI agents discovered in a locked safe “a vast trove of lewd photographs” as well as compact discs of what appeared to be pictures of nude underage girls.
Mr. Epstein is a registered sex offender as a result of his Florida conviction.
In February, Federal Judge Kenneth A. Marra ruled that the 2008 agreement executed by Mr. Acosta as U.S. Attorney broke Federal law because prosecutors failed to notify dozens of victims of Mr. Epstein’s crimes when he granted lawyers’ request to put the deal under court seal before the plea deal was signed off on by the courts.
Judge Marra ruled in the case, brought by two victims under the Federal Crime Victims’ Act, that Mr. Acosta’s office intentionally misled the victims that there was still an ongoing criminal probe after they had inked the sealed deal with Mr. Epstein.
That plea deal required only that Mr. Epstein and four co-conspirators plead guilty to two state prostitution charges in exchange for receiving immunity from far more serious Federal charges.
“Epstein used paid employees to find and bring minor girls to him,” Judge Marra wrote in his decision. “Epstein worked in concert with others to obtain minors and not only for his own sexual gratification, but also for the sexual gratification of others.”
The Epstein controversy surfaced during Mr. Acosta’s Senate confirmation hearing in February 2017.
In a July 8 editorial, the Miami Herald, whose investigative reporting on the case Mr. Berman credited with “assisting” prosecutors, repeated its call for Mr. Acosta’s resignation.
The paper’s series entitled “Perversion of Justice” reported that Mr. Acosta met privately with Mr. Epstein’s legal team more than a decade ago and that as a result of the deal Mr. Epstein was sentenced to just 13 months in a county jail, from which he was granted daily work release and allowed to “travel to New York and his private island in the Caribbean during his subsequent house arrest.”
‘Shocks the Conscience’
The most controversial aspect of the 2008 deal, which Mr. Epstein’s lawyers insist was signed off on at the highest level of the Bush Administration Justice Department, was that by permitting him to plead to just state prostitution charges, it failed to hold him to account for sexually exploiting scores of underage girls on a scale that Mr. Berman told reporters “shocks the conscience.”
The current prosecution is being handled by Mr. Berman’s Public Corruption Unit, with assistance from the NYPD’s Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force.
At back-to-back court hearings, Mr. Epstein’s legal team accused Federal prosecutors of improperly trying to get a “do-over” because DOJ prosecutors had erred in their failure to notify victims of the 2008 plea deal.
Mr. Berman told reporters that the Southern District of New York had no part in the 2008 immunity deal that was brokered by Mr. Acosta and was free to pursue the case.
There is no statute of limitations for certain sex crimes.
Attorney David Boies, who represents five alleged victims in the Epstein case, said in an interview outside the courthouse, “This is an incredible big step towards getting justice for the many victims of the Epstein sex-trafficking operation”
He added that his clients “have been subject to years of verbal abuse which compounded the sexual abuse by Mr. Epstein and his enablers who have tried to attack their credibility, undermine their testimony—and this is an extremely important vindication.”
The disclosure that Mr. Epstein was still in possession of naked photos of “apparently underage girls,” caught Mr. Boies by surprise. “That somebody that knows he is subject to discovery to have kept all of those nude photographs of girls is in my mind incomprehensible. What it does show is how much he thought he was above the law, and he wasn’t worried about it,” he said.