Alex Acosta strongly defends handling of Jeffrey Epstein sex-trafficking case

Harriet Alexander
Alex Acosta, the labour secretary, pictured with Donald Trump. Mr Acosta insists he did not bungle the 2007 investigation into Jeffrey Epstein - Getty Images North America

Donald Trump’s embattled labour secretary has issued an impassioned defence of his decision not to prosecute Jeffrey Epstein, insisting that he acted with the victims’ best interests at heart and refusing to answer whether he had considered resigning.

Alex Acosta was the US attorney for Southern Florida when, in 2007, Epstein escaped prosecution on federal sex-trafficking charges and was instead allowed to plead guilty to lesser state crimes.

Dozens of women have accused Epstein, a billionaire 66-year-old financier who once counted Bill Clinton, Mr Trump and Prince Andrew among his friends, of bringing them to his mansions in Florida and New York for massages, and then sexually assaulting them. Some were as young as 14.

On Wednesday morning another woman, Jennifer Araoz, came forward and accused Epstein of raping her when she was 15.

Jeffrey Epstein, in court in Manhattan on Monday

Epstein was arrested on Saturday and formally charged in New York on Monday, entering a not guilty plea. If found guilty he could be sentenced to 45 years in prison on child sex trafficking charges.

Mr Acosta, who faces mounting calls for his resignation, on Wednesday defended his actions.

"We were trying to do the right thing for these victims," he told a press conference, spending 50 minutes answering questions and explaining his actions.

"The Palm Beach state attorney's office was ready to let Epstein walk away, no jail time, nothing. Prosecutors presented an ultimatum - plead guilty to the more serious charges, or roll the dice and face a federal case.

"The goal here was straight forward: to put Epstein behind bars."

Mr Acosta said he welcomed the New York prosecutors’ decision to charge Epstein. Reporting in The Miami Herald, published in November, revived interest in the case and shone a spotlight on Mr Acosta’s actions.

"Epstein's actions absolutely deserve a stiffer sentence,” he said. “He should be prosecuted in any state in which he committed a crime. If there are other states that can bring charges, they should consider them as well. I absolutely welcome this New York prosecution."

Jeffrey Epstein, pictured in 2008 after the Florida plea deal had been reached

The Miami Herald exposed the fact that Epstein’s accusers were not notified of the plea deal – a legal requirement. Mr Acosta for the first time explained why, saying that the deal included the possibility for the victims to seek financial compensation, and the prosecutor did not want the victims to know of that until the deal be agreed, lest Epstein’s legal team seize on it and try to smear the victims as gold diggers.

He urged other victims to come forward.

However, he dodged the question of whether he would resign if the office of professional responsibility, which has launched an investigation, discovered any misconduct.

And he vacillated when asked if he truly had no regrets about his handling of the case. 

"No regrets is a very hard question,” he said. "As you watch these victim interviews, it's very obvious that the victims feel this was not a sufficient outcome. So you always look back and ask what if. 

“What I can say is, at the time, this was the view of the office. There is a value to a short guilty plea. Because letting what the state attorney was ready to do go forward, that would have been absolutely awful."