Shared from the 7/11/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Acosta defends role in Epstein plea deal

Labor secretary says his focus as a prosecutor was getting jail time for multimillionaire now accused of abusing dozens of young girls

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Labor Secretary Alex Acosta is facing mounting calls to resign from Democrats.

WASHINGTON — Embattled Labor Secretary Alex Acosta on Wednesday defended his role as a federal prosecutor in brokering a decade-old plea deal for sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, but lawyers for victims criticized his explanation and Democrats called for him to appear at a congressional hearing in two weeks.

Acosta, the top federal prosecutor for the Southern District of Florida when the 2008 deal was struck, portrayed his actions and those of his fellow federal prosecutors as heroic and possibly unprecedented.

He said the state attorney was preparing to allow Epstein to plead to a single charge of solicitation that did not make areference to the age of the female minor. That deal would have carried no jail time and would not have required Epstein to register as a sex offender.

“We wanted to see Epstein go to jail,” Acosta said. “He needed to go to jail.”

The federal non-prosecution agreement that Epstein signed allowed him to plead guilty in state court to two felony solicitation charges, one involving an underage girl. He served a 13-month sentence in a private wing of a Palm Beach, Fla., jail, and was allowed to leave 12 hours aday, six days a week to work out of a nearby office.

A federal judge this year ruled that prosecutors violated the rights of the victims by failing to notify them of the plea deal.

Epstein is facing a new raft of federal child sex trafficking charges. Federal prosecutors Monday unsealed sex trafficking charges against him, alleging that the politically connected multimillionaire had abused dozens of young girls at his New York and Palm Beach homes and enlisted his victims to bring him others.

During Wednesday’s news conference, Acosta said that new evidence and a change in climate for sex abuse victims — since they are now more likely to be believed — has made the case against Epstein more viable.

“This is very, very good,” he said of the new case. “His acts are despicable.”

Acosta said that, a decade ago, the female minors were either too afraid to testify or wanted to put the incident behind them, making it difficult to put together a case. His staff distributed an affidavit from Marie Villafana, an assistant state attorney, who gave the same account and also said that one accuser had changed her statement, saying Epstein had not sexually assaulted them.

Acosta said, “In our heart, we were trying to do the right thing for these victims.”

Spencer Kuvin, a Florida-based attorney for the 14-year-old girl who first alerted police to Epstein’s conduct, said Acosta stopped investigating long before he should have, giving up on the case and settling for less than he should have.

“Mr. Acosta’s office did not take this matter seriously back in 2008 and still refuses to accept responsibility for his failed leadership, which lead to a sweetheart deal for a pedophile,” Kuvin said.

The former state’s attorney for Palm Beach County at the time of the Epstein plea deal released a statement disputing Acosta’s account.

“I can emphatically state that Mr. Acosta’s recollection of this matter is completely wrong,” wrote Barry Krischer. “Federal prosecutors do not take a back seat to state prosecutors.” Krischer said Acosta could have moved forward with a 53-page indictment that Acosta’s office had drafted.

Acosta’s statements did not help him with Democrats as pressure mounted for his resignation and for him to offer a better explanation for the plea deal.

“Secretary Acosta had a chance to do right by Jeffrey Epstein’s victims. He failed,” Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Chairman David Cicilline of Rhode Island said in a prepared statement. “Today’s press conference doesn’t change that. The only appropriate thing for him to do now is to resign.”

Before the news conference, House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., joined by four of his Democratic colleagues, sent a letter to Acosta demanding he appear before the powerful investigative panel to testify July 23 on the Epstein plea deal.

Attorneys for Epsteins’ victims also called for Acosta’s resignation and questioned the explanations he gave during the hourlong news conference.

“Secretary Acosta’s repeated reference to a criminal prosecution of Jeffrey Epstein as a‘roll of the dice’ is grossly offensive,” said Jack Scarola, an attorney who represents many of Epstein’s alleged victims. “It demeans the credibility of the dozens of victim-witnesses available to testify against Epstein. It ignores the strength of the abundant corroborating evidence, including irrefutable documentary support.”

Several Democrats in Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., have called for Acosta’s resignation. But no Senate Republicans — who all voted for Acosta’s confirmation in 2017 — have explicitly called on Acosta to resign, although several are awaiting the results of a Justice Department probe into the handling of Epstein’s plea deal before commenting on Acosta’s fate.

Trump has stood by Acosta and pushed Acosta to hold the news conference to defend himself. Acosta described his relationship with Trump as “outstanding” when asked if the president was still supporting him.

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