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 a reference 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, Florida, jail, and was allowed to leave 12 hours a day, 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 on 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.
Former assistant U.S. attorney Neama Rahmani said that Acosta's claim that sexual assault cases were handled differently a decade ago is "absolutely not true."
"There's no difference in how these cases were prosecuted 10, 11 years ago than today," said Rahmani, president of West Coast Trial Lawyers. "He gave them a sweetheart deal. . . . Sex crimes against minors have been very aggressively prosecuted by U.S. attorneys' offices for many years."
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.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., tweeted, "Acosta is trying to defend the indefensible. He put a monstrous predator above survivors of sexual abuse, and he's got to go - period."
"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.
"Your testimony is even more critical now that federal prosecutors . . . have unsealed a new indictment earlier this week outlining a host of additional charges against Mr. Epstein," said the letter from Cummings and Reps. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, Jackie Speier of California, Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Lois Frankel of Florida.
The committee also asked the Justice Department for a briefing on an ongoing review of Acosta's conduct by the agency's office that investigates potential misconduct by Justice employees.
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.
Asked at Wednesday's news conference whether he would have made the same deal today, Acosta declined to say. He argued that "today's world treats victims very, very differently" and that if a trial were held today, there would be little of the "victim-shaming" that would have taken place 12 years ago.
"I'm here to say we did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail," Acosta said. "He needed to go to jail, and that was the focus."
In a statement about the case in 2011, Acosta said he and his fellow prosecutors were under great pressure from an army of superstar defense lawyers who used hyper-aggressive tactics, including investigating the prosecutors and their families for "personal peccadilloes." Acosta wrote then that the negotiations were a "year-long assault on the prosecution and the prosecutors." Acosta didn't mention the defense's tactics Wednesday.
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.
Following the news conference, some in the White House said they believed Acosta started out strong - making a compelling case that he had pushed for a harsher prosecution of Epstein than he might have otherwise faced - but allowed the questioning to drag on for too long.
A senior administration official who asked not to be named said it would not have been appropriate for Acosta to offer a fiery defense of himself, in part because of the heinous nature of the crimes of which Epstein is accused. Acosta had a fine line to walk, the official said - behaving like a lawyer and explaining the challenges he faced prosecuting Epstein. The official thought Acosta had been successful in that goal.
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The Washington Post's Lisa Rein, Josh Dawsey, Damian Paletta and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.
This article was written by ____, a reporter for The Washington Post.