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  1. Opinion

Acosta can't defend the indefensible. He's not fit to be the Labor secretary. | Editorial

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, when he was a federal prosecutor in Miami, helped negotiate an agreement that greatly reduced the severity of the conviction of Jeffrey Epstein, a sexual abuser of girls. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
Published Jul. 11

As much as he tries to cloud the truth and rewrite history, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta cannot defend the indefensible. Sex assaults always have been sexual assaults, victims always have deserved equal justice, and favoritism for the wealthy and well-connected always has been unacceptable. Acosta's failures as the U.S. attorney in South Florida in prosecuting Jeffrey Epstein for preying on young girls and women look no better after his news conference this week, and he does not deserve to keep his job in the Trump administration.

In the wake of Epstein's arrest this week on new charges of running a sex-trafficking operation involving dozens of girls, Acosta has been under renewed scrutiny for the sweetheart deal he negotiated with Epstein as South Florida's top federal prosecutor in 2008. The agreement enabled Epstein to plead guilty to state prostitution charges involving girls under the age of 18 without having to face federal charges. As the Miami Herald chronicled in an exhaustive investigation, Acosta set aside a 53-page federal indictment his office prepared, granting immunity to Epstein and unnamed associates. He also kept the deal secret from Epstein's victims, which a federal judge in February found violated the law. Epstein served 13 months of an 18-month sentence, and despite rules barring work release for sex offenders, was allowed to leave the Palm Beach County jail six days a week to work from his downtown office. Prosecutors in New York appropriately credited the Herald's award-winning reporting as they announced the new charges.

Acosta's action - rather, inaction - is front and center now that prosecutors allege Epstein ran a sex trafficking operation from at least 2002 through at least 2005 that lured dozens of minor girls - some as young as 14 - to his Manhattan home and Palm Beach mansion "to engage in sex acts with him." Amid growing calls for his resignation, Acosta insisted Wednesday he got the toughest deal possible in Florida, and he blamed local authorities for botching the case and even the mind set of the times - "we live in a very different world" - for snubbing the victims. He was unapologetic — and unconvincing. Acosta's news conference proved one thing: These girls never had a chance for equal justice.

The Palm Beach County state attorney at the time, Barry Krischer, fired back that Acosta "should not be allowed to rewrite history." His recollection, Krischer said, "is completely wrong." Regardless of the state charge, he said, "the U.S. attorney's' office always had the ability to file its own federal charges." Local prosecutors are typically more than happy to let federal prosecutors drop a heavier hammer on defendants. And if the state's case was so weak, why didn't Acosta move forward with the 53-page indictment that his own office drafted? At the very least, he could have redoubled the investigation and searched for more victims.

The Department of Justice is reviewing Acosta's handling of the non-prosecution agreement. He expressed no regrets Wednesday, offering the bizarre defense that "today's world treats victims very, very differently." Today's world? That was 11 years ago. Was sexual abuse of children not a crime, or worth a federal prosecutor's time?

The issue here is much larger than whether Acosta keeps his job. He failed these children and his own duty as a prosecutor, and the callousness he shows even with the benefit of hindsight — blame the state, the staff or the times — is unacceptable for a member of any president's administration. But in the bigger picture, Epstein's victims have a new opportunity to finally receive equal justice that is blind to wealth and connections. Federal prosecutors should continue to aggressively pursue this investigation wherever it leads.

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