Why Alex Acosta is "public enemy No. 2" in the Jeffrey Epstein case

Why Alex Acosta is "public enemy No. 2"

Last Updated Jul 9, 2019 7:22 PM EDT

After federal prosecutors accused billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein of sex trafficking and conspiracy, another public figure is coming under scrutiny: Alex Acosta, the then-U.S. attorney who negotiated a secret plea deal for Epstein when he faced similar charges in 2008.

When the 66-year-old pleaded guilty to sex abuse in Florida 11 years ago, Acosta worked with Epstein's attorneys to strike a deal that required the former investment banker to register as a sex offender and serve 13 months in a Florida county jail. Acosta, who defended the secret deal during a budget hearing last April by claiming that "at the end of the day, Mr. Epstein went to jail," now works as President Trump's secretary of labor.

CBS News legal analyst Rikki Klieman called the 2008 plea deal "appalling." "You have a sex trafficking indictment with multiple victims, it goes away, and the victims are never informed about it," Klieman said, adding "Why would you do that? Well, because it was really a terrible, terrible plea deal."

Trump distances himself from Jeffrey Epstein after new sex trafficking charges

Klieman said that she believes Acosta has been "greatly tainted" by that plea deal. "I think there will be a groundswell. You have to remember the change of time and change of culture. At the time, 2008, when people were victims in situations like this, they had shame. Now, because of the #MeToo movement, now they have courage. So Alex Acosta becomes public enemy No. 2 – Jeffrey Epstein being number one — but No. 2 because he did this sweetheart deal."

"It is going to be looked at, and dissected, and I think Alex Acosta needs to talk to his family, and have a big reconsideration. Because already, people are calling for his resignation."

In the day following the unsealing of the indictment, multiple prominent Democrats have called for Acosta's resignation, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer. Mr. Trump said Tuesday that he'll look "very carefully" at Acosta's handling of the case.

Acosta tweeted Tuesday that the crimes committed by Epstein were "horrific" and was pleased that New York prosecutors were moving ahead "with a case based on new evidence."

Epstein's lawyer cited the plea deal in response to the new indictment, claiming that the case was settled back in 2008 and that New York prosecutors want a do-over. Epstein has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Klieman isn't surprised by that. "The expected defense move would be to say 'we'll file a motion to dismiss, because this has all been litigated before, and he was given immunity back in 2008 by the Southern District of Miami in the federal prosecution.' When a 53-page indictment just went away, it was dismissed, he got to do 13 months on one state count, of solicitation of prostitution. So he went from being a predator to simply being a john."

That doesn't mean the argument will work, however. "The Southern District of New York simply says 'look, he had an agreement with the Southern District of Florida. That doesn't bind the Southern District of New York…'" Klieman said. "And now, they are looking for new victims, so they may have some new charges."      

The new indictment alleges that Jeffrey Epstein started abusing underage girls in 2002, with alleged encounters at his New York City mansion and Palm Beach estate.

Prosecutors say that "victims were initially recruited to provide 'massages' to Epstein, which would be performed nude or partially nude." The massages allegedly "would typically include one or more sex acts."

Prosecutors say the alleged sex ring may have involved dozens of underage teenage girls, and the indictment claims Epstein knew some of the girls he allegedly preyed on were just 14 years old.

"The girls were recruited in a variety of ways, usually by employees of Epstein and sometimes by fellow victims," said FBI special agent William Sweeney. "The victims typically received hundreds of dollars in cash."

Over the weekend, federal agents forced their way into Epstein's $77 million New York City townhouse. During their search, investigators say they discovered "at least hundreds — and perhaps thousands — of sexually suggestive photographs." Some were allegedly "in a locked safe" containing "compact discs with hand-written labels," such as "girl pics nude."

Over the years, Epstein's established relationships included President Trump and former president Bill Clinton, who rode Epstein's private jet in the early 2000s. His spokesman said the trips were related to work with the Clinton Foundation, adding "President Clinton knows nothing about the terrible crimes Jeffrey Epstein pleaded guilty to in Florida some years ago, or those with which he has been recently charged in New York. ... He's not spoken to Epstein in well over a decade."

Attorney David Boies, who represents three of Epstein's alleged victims, said his clients hope "that Mr. Epstein and people who worked with him and enabled him are finally brought to justice, and this looks like an important first step in having that happen."

The White House has not responded to requests for comment. White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway dodged questions about President's Trump confidence in Acosta given his role in the case, and told reporters that Trump said that he didn't know Acosta at the time. The Department of Labor has not yet responded to CBS News' requests for comment regarding Acosta's involvement in the case.

Epstein is expected to make his next court appearance Thursday for a bail hearing, and prosecutors are requesting he remain in custody until his trial. They believe his extraordinary wealth, access to private jets, homes abroad, and lack of family ties in the U.S. make him an extreme flight risk.