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.
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.