Embattled Alexander Acosta defends his handling of Jeffrey Epstein plea deal: 'Times have changed'

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, under fire for his handling of a case against accused child predator Jeffrey Epstein when he was a federal prosecutor in Florida, held a press conference in Washington Wednesday to defend his actions in the 2008 case, which resulted in what observers have described as a shockingly lenient sentence.

“Times have changed,” Acosta said about the difficulty of securing a guilty verdict against accused sex offenders a decade ago, before the enactment of protections for testifying victims.

In defending the non-prosecution agreement entered into by his office, Acosta laid blame on Florida officials in Palm Beach for not seeking to charge Epstein with crimes that would result in jail time. “The Palm Beach attorney’s office [which had brought the initial case] was ready to let Epstein walk free,” Acosta said. “We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail. He needed to go to jail.”

Acosta said the Florida justice system was responsible for the light sentence given to Epstein — 18 months, of which he only served 13. “The outrage over that is entirely appropriate,” he said.

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta. (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)

Barry Krischer, the Palm Beach County attorney in 2007, took issue with Acosta’s version of events, telling the Associated Press that Acosta “should not be allowed to rewrite history.”

Accusing Acosta of abandoning a federal indictment of Epstein after secret meetings with his lawyers, Krischer refuted Acosta’s account.

“If Mr. Acosta was truly concerned with the state's case and felt he had to rescue the matter, he would have moved forward with the 53-page indictment that his own office drafted,” Krischer told the AP.

While Acosta pointed a finger at Florida officials, he offered praise New York prosecutors for bringing new charges this week. “Epstein’s actions absolutely deserve a stiffer sentence,” Acosta said.

Acosta explained that his office was uncertain whether it could convict Epstein on charges of child molestation, noting that some of his alleged victims had “actually exonerated Epstein.”

Going to trial, he said, would amount to “rolling the dice.”

In light of those factors, Acosta said, his office reached its determination that the plea deal was the best course of action.

“The goal here was straightforward,” Acosta said. “Put Epstein behind bars.”

Less straightforward was why Acosta’s office didn’t continue to investigate Epstein before reaching a plea deal for child prostitution charges that, Acosta conceded, didn’t accurately reflect what occurred. Epstein, according to the account in the Herald, paid the girls after their encounters, but they were not prostitutes. “Were the victims prostitutes? No,” Acosta said.

Throughout the news conference, Acosta repeatedly declined to apologize to Epstein’s child victims, instead reflecting on the difficulty of watching the videotaped statements victims had made recounting the abuse they suffered.

Asked if he had any regrets about not charging Epstein with more serious crimes, Acosta offered a qualified answer.

In this courtroom artist's sketch, defendant Jeffrey Epstein, center, sits with attorneys Martin Weinberg, left, and Marc Fernich. (Illustration: Elizabeth Williams via AP)

“We believe we proceeded appropriately. Based on the evidence, there was value to getting a guilty plea and having him register [as a sex offender],” Acosta said. “Look, no regrets is a very hard question.”

Over the past week, women have continued to step forward with accusations against Epstein. On Wednesday, Jennifer Araoz said she was raped by Epstein at his New York mansion when she was 15.

Acosta acknowledged the new accusations against Epstein. “He’s a bad man and he needs to be put away,” he said.

Since Epstein was charged in New York on Monday with abusing more than 100 young girls at his homes in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Fla., Democrats including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have called for Acosta’s resignation.

Republican members of Congress have largely remained silent on the controversy over Acosta’s past.

In 2007, a 53-page federal indictment brought by Acosta’s office accused Epstein of trafficking underage girls for sex parties. Epstein faced a possible sentence that could have kept him in prison for the rest of his life. But at a secret meeting at a hotel between Acosta and Epstein’s lawyer, Jay Lefkowitz, a former colleague of Acosta’s at the firm of Kirkland & Ellis, a non-prosecution agreement was reached that resulted in a drastically different outcome, the Miami Herald reported.

According to the newspaper, the two men cut a deal that shuttered ongoing FBI investigations into what authorities suspect was a network of enablers that recruited minor girls for sex. The deal allowed Epstein to plead guilty in state court to two counts of soliciting prostitution from a minor, a far less serious offense than the dozens of federal counts of molesting underage girls. Though he was forced to register as a sex offender and was sentenced to 18 months in prison, he only served 13 months and was allowed to leave the facility for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week. Another perk of the deal shielded Epstein and four others from federal prosecution.

President Trump with Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta in 2018. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

Acosta said the meeting with Lefkowitz actually took place after the agreement had been reached and signed.

In defiance of the law, Acosta’s office kept the agreement secret from Epstein’s victims. At his press conference, Acosta explained that the agreement provided that Epstein would pay the legal costs of victims who sued him, and that he was concerned the case would be tainted if the witnesses against Epstein knew they could receive compensation.

Epstein’s relationship with wealthy, powerful people had long proved an asset, and he counted former President Bill Clinton and President Trump among his friends. In 1992, Epstein and Trump held a “calendar girl” event at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach. While 28 women were flown in to provide entertainment, Epstein and Trump were the only male guests in attendance, the New York Times reported.

A decade later, Trump acknowledged he knew about Epstein’s predilection for women “on the younger side.”

“I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy,” Trump told New York magazine. “He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”

Trump and Epstein eventually had a falling out, and Epstein was banned from Trump’s clubs. But the plea deal Acosta made with Epstein is now shining a light on the relationship between the two men.

This week, Trump voiced sympathy for his labor secretary rather than Epstein’s victims.

“I feel very badly, actually, for Secretary Acosta because I’ve known him as somebody who works so hard and has done such a good job,” Trump told reporters.

Wednesday’s news conference came as Trump weighed whether the controversy over the plea deal had made keeping Acosta in his position untenable.

“Why am I talking today?” Acosta said in response to a question. “The answer is this has clearly reached the level where I thought it was important to have this kind of press conference to take questions and to provide these facts and these perspectives.”

Acosta said his relationship with the president remained strong.

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

Dylan Stableford contributed to this article.

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