Labor Secretary Acosta defends Epstein deal amid calls for resignation

WASHINGTON (AP) — Insisting 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 Acosta tried to stave off intensifying Democratic calls for his resignation.

“We believe that we proceeded appropriately,” Acosta told reporters at a news conference at Labor Department headquarters, where he retraced steps federal prosecutors took in the case a decade ago when he was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida. Acosta said state authorities had planned to go after Epstein with charges that would have resulted in no jail time until his office intervened and pressed for tougher consequences.

“We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail,” he said. “That was the focus.” He added: “Facts are important and facts are being overlooked.”

Acosta is being assailed for his part in the secret 2008 plea deal he signed that let Epstein avoid federal prosecution on charges that he molested teenage girls. But he was unapologetic Wednesday as he declared his office did the best it could under the circumstances.

The deal Acosta helped broker has come under new and intense scrutiny after prosecutors in New York on Monday brought new child sex-trafficking charges alleging 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 not guilty to the charges; if convicted he could be imprisoned for the rest of his life.

11 PHOTOSThe Jeffrey Epstein caseSee GalleryThe Jeffrey Epstein caseNEW YORK, NY – JULY 08: US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman announces charges against Jeffery Epstein on July 8, 2019 in New York City. Epstein will be charged with one count of sex trafficking of minors and one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)NEW YORK, NY – JULY 08: US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman announces charges against billionaire financier Jeffery Epstein on July 8, 2019 in New York City. Epstein will be charged with one count of sex trafficking of minors and one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)NEW YORK, NEW YORK – JULY 08: Two of the purported victims of multi-millionaire Jeffrey Epstein, Michelle Licata (L) and Courtney Wild leave a Manhattan court house after a hearing on sex trafficking charges for financier Jeffrey Epstein on July 08, 2019 in New York City. Epstein is charged with having operated a sex trafficking ring in which he sexually abused dozens of underage girls.(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)NEW YORK, NY – JULY 08: Two of Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged victims, Michelle Licata (L) and Courtney Wild (R), exit the courthouse after the billionaire financier appeared for a hearing on July 8, 2019 in New York City. According to reports, Epstein will be charged with one count of sex trafficking of minors and one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)In this courtroom artist’s sketch, defendant Jeffrey Epstein, center, sits with attorneys Martin Weinberg, left, and Marc Fernich during his arraignment in New York federal court, Monday, July 8, 2019. Epstein pleaded not guilty to federal sex trafficking charges. The 66-year-old is accused of creating and maintaining a network that allowed him to sexually exploit and abuse dozens of underage girls from 2002 to 2005. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)NEW YORK, US – JULY 08: David Boies, attorney for the alleged sex victims of the US financier Jeffreey Epstein case, delivers a speech to the media outside the United States Federal Court on July 08, 2019 in New York, United States. (Photo by Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)NEW YORK, NY – JULY 08: A residence belonging to Jeffrey Epstein at East 71st street is seen on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on July 8, 2019 in New York City. According to reports, Epstein is charged with running a sex-trafficking operation out of his opulent mansion. (Photo by Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)NEW YORK, NY – JULY 08: Prosecutors exit the room after US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman announces charges against Jeffery Epstein on July 8, 2019 in New York City. Epstein will be charged with one count of sex trafficking of minors and one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)NEW YORK, NY – JULY 08: Member of the press listen as US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman announces charges against Jeffery Epstein on July 8, 2019 in New York City. Epstein will be charged with one count of sex trafficking of minors and one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)NEW YORK, NY – JULY 08: A protest group called “Hot Mess” hold up signs of Jeffrey Epstein and President Donald Trump in front of the Federal courthouse on July 8, 2019 in New York City. According to reports, Epstein will be charged with one count of sex trafficking of minors and one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman speaks during a news conference, in New York, Monday, July 8, 2019. Federal prosecutors announced sex trafficking and conspiracy charges against wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein. Court documents unsealed Monday show Epstein is charged with creating and maintaining a network that allowed him to sexually exploit and abuse dozens of underage girls.(AP Photo/Richard Drew)Up Next

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Acosta said he welcomed the new case, calling Epstein’s acts “despicable.” Earlier he 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.”

Acosta has long made the case that it was better to use the threat of a federal indictment to force Epstein into a state guilty plea, with restitution to victims and registration as a sex offender, than it would have been to “roll the dice” and take Epstein to trial. But the result, to critics, was egregiously lenient.

Acosta’s 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. Epstein served 13 months in a work-release program. He was also required to make payments to victims and register as a sex offender.

Pressed on whether he had regrets, Acosta repeatedly suggested that circumstances had changed in the years since the plea.

“We now have 12 years of knowledge and hindsight and we live in a very different world,” he said. “Today’s world treats victims very, very differently.”

Trump has, so far, also defended Acosta, praising his work as labor secretary and saying he felt “very badly” for him “because I’ve known him as being somebody that works so hard and has done such a good job.” Still, he said, he would be looking at the circumstances of the case “very closely.”

Though Trump may have made the tagline “You’re fired!” famous on his reality show “The Apprentice,” he has shown a pattern of reluctance to fire even his most embattled aides. Trump, for instance, took months to dismiss Scott Pruitt as Environmental Protection Agency administrator despite a dizzying array of scandals, and allowed Jeff Sessions to remain as attorney general for more than a year even as he railed at and belittled him.

Trump typically gives his Cabinet secretaries the opportunity to defend themselves publicly in interviews and press conferences before deciding whether to pull the plug. And he encouraged Acosta to hold a press 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.

Acosta said the attention hadn’t changed his relationship with Trump, insisting it was “outstanding.”

Trump, who had once praised Epstein as “a terrific guy,” dissociated himself Tuesday from the wealthy hedge fund manager now charged with abusing minors, saying the two had a falling out 15 or so years ago and hadn’t spoken since.

Democratic presidential contenders and party leaders want Acosta to resign or be fired over the 2008 deal that has struck many prosecutors as unusually lenient.

Democratic Reps. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Jamie Raskin sent Acosta a letter Wednesday inviting him to testify July 23. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, welcomed that move, 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.”

Many Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have taken a wait-and-see approach. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said Tuesday that Acosta should hold a news conference to explain why he’d agreed to the plea bargain and answer all questions.

“Anybody who would look at this, just based on what’s been reported, would have questions,” Kennedy said. “That doesn’t mean necessarily that there aren’t answers.” The Labor Department said Acosta planned to take questions as well as make a statement.

12 PHOTOSLabor secretary Alexander AcostaSee GalleryLabor secretary Alexander AcostaSecretary of Labor Alex Acosta listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a Hispanic Heritage Month event in the East Room of the White House, Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta testifies during a hearing before the House Appropriations subcommittee on budget on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)President Donald Trump stands with Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta during a Hispanic Heritage Month event in the East Room of the White House, Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)President Donald Trump, flanked byEducation Secretary Betsy DeVos, left, and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, gestures as he answers a question regarding the ongoing situation in North Korea, Friday, Aug. 11, 2017, at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta is seen in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, during an event for military spouses to discuss the problems they face with employment, as part of “American Dream Week.” (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)President Donald Trump signs an executive order on a revised Cuba policy aimed at stopping the flow of U.S. cash to the country’s military and security services while maintaining diplomatic relations, Friday, June 16, 2017, in Miami. From left are, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Cary Roque, Vice President Mike Pence and Labor Secretary Alex Acosta. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., right, shakes hands with Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta following his speech at an event where President Donald Trump announced a revised Cuba policy aimed at stopping the flow of U.S. cash to the country’s military and security services while maintaining diplomatic relations, Friday, June 16, 2017, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, June 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)President Donald Trump, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, third from left, Ivanka Trump, the daughter of President Donald Trump, second from right, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, right, tour the Waukesha County Technical College in Pewaukee, Wis., Tuesday, June 13, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, center left, and Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, right, arrive before a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation hearing on infrastructure on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)Department of Labor Secretary Alex Acosta speaks during a Infosys economic development announcement, Thursday, April 26, 2018, in Indianapolis. The India-based information technology company plans to start a training center in Indianapolis and add 1,000 jobs on top of the 2,000 positions it announced for the city a year ago. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, left, and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, right, tour the Cook Inlet Tribal Council Employment and Training Center on Monday, July 2, 2018, in Anchorage, Alaska. Acosta is traveling in Alaska this week, and said during a Sunday stop in Fairbanks that Alaska’s economy should pick up given an increase in military spending and pro-energy policies of the Trump administration. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)Up Next

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Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Zeke Miller and Darlene Superville in Washington and Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.

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