Labor Secretary Alex Acosta rejected calls to resign Wednesday, saying he was the one who made sure billionaire Jeffrey Epstein served jail time and registered as a sex offender the first time he was accused of sexually abusing teen girls.
Fighting for his job and his reputation, Mr. Acosta held a rare press conference to defend the decisions he made a decade ago when, as U.S. attorney in Miami, he was involved in that first case against Mr. Epstein.
His prosecutors struck a deal in 2008 to drop their case in exchange for Mr. Epstein’s agreement to plead guilty to a state prostitution charge, to serve time in a work-release program, to register as a sex offender and to pay restitution to victims.
Mr. Acosta said state prosecutors were preparing to pursue even lesser charges until his office stepped in and threatened a heftier indictment.
“Simply put, the Palm Beach state attorney’s office was ready to let Epstein walk free with no jail time. Nothing,” Mr. Acosta said. “Prosecutors in my former office found this to be completely unacceptable.”
Barry Krischer, who was the Palm Beach state attorney at that time, pushed back on Mr. Acosta’s claims, calling them “completely wrong” and accusing the labor secretary of rewriting history.
“Federal prosecutors do not take a back seat to state prosecutors,” Mr. Krischer said in a statement. “That’s not how the system works in the real world.”
He also questioned why Mr. Acosta scrapped a federal indictment that had made the draft stage. If he “was truly concerned with the state’s case and he felt he had to rescue the matter, he would have moved forward with the 53-page indictment that his own office drafted,” Mr. Krischer said.
As a member of President Trump’s Cabinet, Mr. Acosta has become a focal point for liberal anger this week after federal prosecutors in New York announced a new set of charges against Mr. Epstein, accusing him of paying teen and underage girls for nude massages and then escalating those encounters into forced sex acts. He is accused of creating a “vast network of underage victims.”
Mr. Epstein has pleaded not guilty to the latest charges.
A woman who is not part of the New York case came forward Wednesday to claim Mr. Epstein forcibly raped her when she was underage.
Jennifer Araoz told NBC she was 14 when a recruiter for Mr. Epstein approached her outside her New York high school. She eventually was pressured to perform topless massages, for which she was paid, and was raped at the age of 15.
“He raped me, forcefully raped me,” the woman told NBC. “He knew exactly what he was doing.”
Mr. Acosta on Wednesday called Mr. Epstein’s actions “despicable” and described him as a “bad man who needs to be put away.”
The secretary said he has reviewed his office’s decisions as questions have been raised and that the 2019 press coverage doesn’t do justice to the decisions made.
“Facts are important, and facts are being overlooked,” he said.
He said a career prosecutor led the decision to cut a deal, which was made in consultation with the FBI.
Mr. Acosta has come under particular criticism, including from Mr. Krischer on Wednesday evening, for the fact that the non-prosecution agreement was not shared with Mr. Epstein’s victims.
The Palm Beach prosecutor accused him of having “brokered a secret plea deal that resulted in a non-prosecution agreement in violation of the Crime Victim’s Rights Act.”
Mr. Acosta called this an oversimplification and refused to second-guess himself.
“A good prosecutor will tell you that these cases are complex, especially when they involve children and even more so in 2006,” the secretary said.
He added: “These questions are always very difficult because we now have 12 years of knowledge and hindsight and we live in a very different world. Today’s world treats victims very, very differently. Today’s world does not allow some of the victim-shaming that could have taken place at trial 12 years ago.”
He also said getting a conviction with some jail time and registration as a sex offender was the most important part of the 2008 deal. He said it is difficult for prosecutors to decide between a lenient guilty deal and taking chances by going to trial with reluctant witnesses.
Despite pleas from the press to apologize, Mr. Acosta refrained from doing so. Instead, he encouraged victims to come forward.
“The victims should come forward because the justice system needs to hear from them. And what the victims went through is horrific,” he said.
Mr. Acosta’s explanation did not quell calls from congressional Democrats for his ouster.
“Secretary Acosta had a chance to do right by Jeffrey Epstein’s victims. He failed. Today’s press conference doesn’t change that,” said Rep. David N. Cicilline, Rhode Island Democrat. “The only appropriate thing for him to do now is to resign.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, who pressed Mr. Acosta about the deal during his 2017 confirmation hearing to be labor secretary, said Wednesday that he was left with plenty of questions from the press conference.
“You claim that you struck the deal to protect victims from tough cross-examination. But why didn’t you let survivors decide for themselves whether to take the stand? And why did you work so hard to keep the deal hidden from them, violating their rights in the process?” he said.
Zach Hilner, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Mr. Acosta was “blame shifting.”
“If we really want to make a change in the culture that allows sexual violence to thrive, it is time for wrongdoers, whatever their political affiliation, to be punished, not ignored, promoted or tolerated,” he said. “This should start with Secretary Acosta, and he should resign today.”
The Justice Department’s office of professional responsibility is reviewing the 2008 deal, and Mr. Acosta said he will sit for an interview when they ask him.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat and House Oversight and Reform Committee chairman, said Mr. Acosta will have to explain the deal to Congress too.
He sent a letter requesting that Mr. Acosta testify at a public hearing on July 23.
Mr. Acosta indicated Wednesday that he will not resign and thanked Mr. Trump, who at the White House a day earlier said he would look into the matter. He praised his secretary as “somebody who works so hard and has done such a good job.”
“If, at some point, the president decides I’m not the best person to do this job, I will respect that,” Mr. Acosta said. “I thought yesterday he was kind and showed great support.”
Marc Short, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, told reporters Wednesday that Mr. Acosta’s critics have it backward. He said Mr. Epstein’s defense attorneys tried to get Mr. Acosta removed because “he was such an aggressive prosecutor in this case.”
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