Acosta de­fends sex crimes plea deal

Dems clamor for la­bor sec­re­tary’s res­ig­na­tion

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Front Page -

WASH­ING­TON — La­bor Sec­re­tary Alex Acosta on Wed­nes­day pub­licly de­fended his role in over­see­ing the pros­e­cu­tion of now­jailed fi­nancier Jef­frey Ep­stein on sex crimes charges in Florida over a decade ago, buck­ing a grow­ing cho­rus of Demo­cratic calls for his res­ig­na­tion.

Mr. Acosta said he had faced a tough choice be­tween ac­cept­ing a plea deal that was not as tough as he wished and go­ing to trial with wit­nesses who were scared to tes­tify, in what he de­scribed as “a roll of the dice” that might not have re­sulted in a con­vic­tion and prison term.

“I wanted to help them,” Mr. Acosta said of the vic­tims dur­ing a na­tion­ally tele­vised news con­fer­ence at the La­bor Depart­ment head­quar­ters. “That is why we in­ter­vened. And that’s what the prose­cu­tors of my of­fice did — they in­sisted that he go to jail and put the world on no­tice that he was and is a sex­ual preda­tor.”

Mr. Acosta’s ap­pear­ance be­fore cam­eras was seen as a cru­cial test of whether he will keep his job, with an au­di­ence of one as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump watched and weighed a de­ci­sion. Mr. Acosta said he had spo­ken with Mr. Trump and be­lieved he had his back­ing.

“My re­la­tion­ship with the pres­i­dent is out­stand­ing,” he said. “He has very pub­licly made clear that I’ve got his sup­port.”

Mr. Acosta also de­nied that Mick Mul­vaney, the White House chief of staff, had sug­gested he be forced out.

But while ex­press­ing em­pa­thy for the vic­tims and ap­plaud­ing the new pros­e­cu­tion in New York, Mr. Acosta de­clined an op­por­tu­nity to apol­o­gize or of­fer re­grets for the de­ci­sion he made back then.

“Look, no re­grets is a very hard ques­tion,” he said. “You al­ways look back and you say, ‘ What if?’” He added: “We did what we did be­cause we wanted to see Ep­stein go to jail. He needed to go to jail. He needed to go to jail. And that was the fo­cus.”

Mr. Acosta was serv­ing as the U. S. at­tor­ney for the South­ern Dis­trict of Florida when he bro­kered a sen­tence that re­sulted in Mr. Ep­stein serv­ing 13 months in jail after be­ing ac­cused of sex­u­ally abus­ing dozens of young women and girls.

In Fe­bru­ary, the Jus­tice Depart­ment opened an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the han­dling of that case, and Mr. Ep­stein was in­dicted Mon­day by the U. S. at­tor­ney in Man­hat­tan on child sex traf­fick­ing charges.

In re­cent days, Mr. Acosta has weath­ered calls for his res­ig­na­tion from Demo­cratic lead­ers, even as Mr. Trump has de­fended him. Mr. Trump told re­porters gath­ered Tues­day at the White House that he felt “badly” for Mr. Acosta but said his ad­min­is­tra­tion would look into the mat­ter “very care­fully.”

Be­hind the scenes, Mr. Trump has been closely fol­low­ing the news cov­er­age sur­round­ing the Ep­stein case, and he has faced new scru­tiny over his own per­sonal re­la­tion­ship with Mr. Ep­stein, also a Palm Beach fix­ture.

The lat­est charges, along with the dis­cov­ery of hun­dreds of nude images of young women or girls at Mr. Ep­stein’s New York res­i­dence, have cre­ated an an­gry public de­bate that has se­verely called into ques­tion Mr. Acosta’s past work to bro­ker an ini­tial plea deal.

The Mi­ami Her­ald, which re­vealed the de­tails of the plea deal in Fe­bru­ary and has called for Mr. Acosta to re­sign, per­suaded sev­eral women who were abused as girls or young women to talk.

At his news con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day, Mr. Acosta said he de­cided to in­ter­vene in what was a state case be­cause Mr. Ep­stein was not go­ing to spend any time be­hind bars. He said some vic­tims were trau­ma­tized and re­fused to tes­tify, and oth­ers ac­tu­ally ex­on­er­ated Mr. Ep­stein.

“Th­ese cases, as I’ve said, are hard. They re­quire a pros­e­cu­tor to ask whether a plea that guar­an­tees jail time and guar­an­tees reg­is­tra­tion, to ask whether that plea ver­sus go­ing to trial,” Mr. Acosta said, men­tion­ing Mr. Ep­stein’s reg­is­tra­tion as a sex of­fender. “How do you weigh those two if go­ing to trial is viewed as a roll of the dice? The goal here was straight­for­ward — put Ep­stein be­hind bars, en­sure that he reg­is­ters as a sex­ual of­fender.”

He ex­plained the late no­ti­fi­ca­tion of the vic­tims by say­ing that it was un­clear that Mr. Ep­stein would abide by the agree­ment and that prose­cu­tors feared de­fense at­tor­neys would use an ef­fort by vic­tims to re­cover resti­tu­tion to un­der­mine their cred­i­bil­ity.

Mr. Acosta said times have changed and ju­ries to­day are more un­der­stand­ing of vic­tims in such cases. “To­day our judges do not al­low vic­tim sham­ing by de­fense at­tor­neys,” he said, adding that out­rage by the vic­tims was “en­tirely ap­pro­pri­ate.”

“The point I’m try­ing to make is ev­ery­thing that the vic­tims have gone through in th­ese cases is hor­rific, and their re­sponse is en­tirely jus­ti­fied,” Mr. Acosta said. “At the same time, I think it’s im­por­tant to stand up for the prose­cu­tors of my for­mer of­fice.”

Mr. Acosta has pri­vately reached out to al­lies for help han­dling the public re­la­tions de­ba­cle and in­quired about po­ten­tial post- govern­ment work should he be forced out, ac­cord­ing to two peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter.

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