Labour Secretary Alexander Acosta said Friday he is resigning following renewed scrutiny of his handling of a 2008 secret plea deal with wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein, who is accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls.
President Donald Trump, with Mr. Acosta at his side, made the announcement as he left the White House for a trip to Wisconsin and Ohio. The President said “I hate to see this happen” and that he did not ask Mr. Acosta to leave the Cabinet. But conservatives unhappy with steps Mr. Acosta has taken at the department had been pushing for his ouster.
Mr. Trump, who publicly faults the news media nearly every day, said Mr. Acosta put the blame for his departure there, too.
The President tweeted from aboard Air Force One that Mr. Acosta “informed me this morning that he felt the constant drumbeat of press about a prosecution which took place under his watch more than 12 years ago was bad for the Administration, which he so strongly believes in, and he graciously tendered his resignation.”
Mr. Acosta was the U.S. attorney in Miami when he oversaw a 2008 non-prosecution agreement that allowed Mr. Epstein to avoid federal charges but plead guilty to state charges and serve 13 months in jail. Similar charges filed against Mr. Epstein by federal prosecutors in New York this week had put Mr. Acosta’s handling of the 2008 agreement with the now-jailed financier back in the spotlight.
Also on Friday, prosecutors said Epstein made payments to two potential witnesses seeking to influence them in the child sex trafficking case against him late last year.
In a filing in Manhattan federal court, prosecutors said Epstein wired a total of $350,000 to the two individuals, who were not named. The accusation came as part of the prosecutors’ motion to keep Epstein in jail as he awaits trial.
Epstein’s lawyers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Acosta said his resignation would be effective in seven days. He said he didn’t think it was right for his handling of Mr. Epstein’s case to overshadow the President’s agenda and his work as secretary of labour.
“My point here today is we have an amazing economy, and the focus needs to be on the economy,” Mr. Acosta said.
Top Democratic lawmakers and presidential candidates had demanded that Mr. Acosta resign. But Mr. Acosta had defended his actions, insisting at a news conference Wednesday that he got the toughest deal on Mr. Epstein that he could get at the time.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said the secretary should never have been appointed by Mr. Trump and confirmed by the Senate. “Thank God he’s gone,” she said
A federal judge said Mr. Acosta violated federal law by not notifying Mr. Epstein’s victims of the plea arrangement. The Justice Department has been investigating.
“We should never allow an official who has been held to break the law by a federal court, to hold an office in the president’s Cabinet. His resignation today is hopefully only the first step in holding those accountable,” said Spencer Kuvin, a Florida lawyer who represents several of Mr. Epstein victims.
Mr. Acosta had also frustrated some conservatives who had been pushing for his ouster long before the Epstein uproar. Among their objections were Mr. Acosta’s decisions to proceed with several employment discrimination lawsuits and to allow certain Obama administration holdovers to keep their jobs.
Mr. Trump had initially defended Mr. Acosta but said he’d look “very closely” at his handling of the 2008 agreement.
The deal had come under scrutiny earlier this year following reporting by The Miami Herald.
Mr. Epstein, 66, reached the deal to secretly end a federal sex-abuse investigation involving at least 40 teenage girls that could have landed him behind bars for life. He instead pleaded guilty to Florida state charges, spent 13 months in jail, paid settlements to victims and registered as a sex offender.
Mr. Acosta had attempted to clear his name, and held a news conference – encouraged by Mr. Trump – to defend his actions. In a 50-plus-minute lawyerly rebuttal, Mr. Acosta argued his office had secured the best deal it could at the time and had worked in the best interests of Mr. Epstein’s victims.
“We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail,” he said. “We believe that we proceeded appropriately.”
Pressed on whether he had any regrets, Mr. Acosta repeatedly said circumstances had changed since then. He did not answer a question about whether he would resign if the Justice Department were to find misconduct on his part.
“We now have 12 years of knowledge and hindsight and we live in a very different world,” he said. “Today’s world treats victims very, very differently.”
After federal attorneys in New York announced the new charges against Mr. Epstein this week, Mr. Acosta tweeted that he was pleased by their decision.
“The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific,” Mr. Acosta tweeted. “With the evidence available more than a decade ago, federal prosecutors insisted that Epstein go to jail, register as a sex offender and put the world on notice that he was a sexual predator.”
“Now that new evidence and additional testimony is available, the NY prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice.”
Mr. Acosta took office as the country’s 27th labour secretary in early 2017, leading a sprawling agency that enforces more than 180 federal laws covering about 10 million employers and 125 million workers. The department also plays a role in combatting human trafficking.
Mr. Trump said Mr. Acosta would be replaced by Pat Pizzella, now the department’s deputy secretary.
Before he was named a U.S. attorney, Mr. Acosta was an assistant attorney-general for the civil rights division in President George W. Bush’s first term. Before joining the Trump administration, Mr. Acosta was dean of the Florida International University law school.
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