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Alexander Acosta, embattled labor secretary, defends handling of Jeffrey Epstein case

Acosta defends handling of Epstein case

Embattled Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta defended his handling of a decade-old plea deal with financier Jeffrey Epstein on sex crime charges when Acosta was the U.S. attorney in Florida's Southern District. Acosta is facing renewed scrutiny over the case after Epstein was arrested on new federal sex trafficking charges in New York last week. 

The plea deal reached with Epstein in 2008 meant he dodged federal charges and spent just 13 months in county jail on state prostitution charges. He was allowed to leave six days a week for work.

At a nearly hour-long press conference at the Labor Department on Wednesday, Acosta described Epstein's actions as "despicable," insisting Epstein might have gotten away with no jail time if his office hadn't gotten involved in the case that was being handled by the state. But Acosta struggled to answer questions about whether he would handle the case differently today, offering no apology to Epstein's victims. 

Asked if he would make the same deal now, Acosta responded: "We live in a very different world. Today's world treats victims very, very differently." 

"Today we know a lot more about how victims' trauma impacts their testimony, and this too is important," he said. "Our juries are more accepting of contradictory statements, understanding that trauma-impacted memories work differently. And today our judges do not allow victim-shaming by defense attorneys."  

The state attorney for Palm Beach County at the time, Barry Krischer, disputed Acosta's assertion that federal prosecutors needed to step in to help the state. "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 said in a statement, "Instead, Mr. Acosta brokered a secret plea deal that resulted in a Non-Prosecution Agreement in violation of the Crime Victim's Rights Act."

Acosta claimed many alleged victims were reticent to come forward at the time, making the case more difficult to prosecute. It's often difficult for prosecutors in such cases, Acosta said, to decide between accepting a guilty plea or risk going to trial, if a trial is "viewed as the roll of a dice." 

Further, when asked why it was his office did not continue the investigation, since "dozens" claimed to have been victims of Epstein in Florida, Acosta said that the victims federal prosecutors knew about were part of the case and that under the agreement, others had the opportunity to proceed with civil cases.

APTOPIX Financier Labor Secretary
Labor Secretary Alex Acosta speaks during a media availability at the Department of Labor on Wednesday, July 10, 2019, in Washington. Alex Brandon / AP

"Facts are important and facts are being overlooked," Acosta said, defending how he and his colleagues at the time handled the plea agreement and case overall. 

A federal judge in February said prosecutors had violated victims' rights by keeping the non-prosecution agreement secret. Acosta explained that prosecutors took this approach because the agreement negotiated with Epstein had "an unusual provision," in that it would require Epstein to pay victims restitution. 

Acosta told reporters that the career prosecutor said that she "did not want to share with the victims that the office was attempting to secure for them monetary compensation because she is aware that if she disclosed that, and the negotiations fell through, Epstein's counsel would use this to question the victim's credibility." 

He claimed that one of Epstein's attorneys "had already asked one of the victims, 'Now tell me about when the federal prosecutors told you about getting money.'" Telling the victims about the agreement and potential restitution payments, Acosta said, would enable Epstein "to make the argument at trial that their testimony was compromised." He said that when the deal went through on a Friday afternoon, with the plea scheduled after the weekend, on Monday, the prosecutor on the case "made every effort to notify the victims" over the weekend. 

Epstein's actions, Acosta said, "absolutely" deserved harsher punishment. The new charges, brought by prosecutors in the Southern District in New York, allege Epstein abused dozens of young girls for years at his residences in Manhattan and Florida. Investigators allegedly found a trove of inappropriate photos at his home, including photos of underage girls. Epstein has pleaded not guilty.

President Trump encouraged Acosta to hold the press conference, an administration official told CBS News' Fin Gomez.

Acosta addressed his handling of the case for the first time on Twitter Tuesday. 

"The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific, and I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence," Acosta tweeted.

Mr. Trump has defended Acosta's work as labor secretary, but suggested Tuesday his administration is looking "very carefully" at Acosta's handling of the Epstein case. The president himself has faced questions over his relationship with Epstein, since the two used to interact, and Epstein used to visit Mr. Trump's Mar-a-Lago club, but he said he had a "falling-out with him a long time ago" and hasn't spoken with him in about 15 years. He said he "wasn't a fan" of Epstein.

Mr. Trump also said that he feels "very badly" for Acosta "because I've known him as being somebody that works so hard and has done such a good job."

The House Oversight Committee has invited Acosta to testify on the plea deal on July 23. Acosta has yet to say whether he'll appear. A growing number of Democrats have called for Acosta to resign, although no Republicans have yet. 

— CBS News' Paula Reid and Arden Farhi contributed to this report.

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