WASHINGTON — Embattled Labor Secretary Alex Acosta on Wednesday defended his handling of billionaire Jeffrey Epstein's 2008 sex-trafficking case, saying the mogul’s teenage victims were reluctant to testify in court and the deal ensured the financier would be listed as a sexual offender.
Acosta, facing mounting calls for his resignation by congressional Democrats, staged a nearly hourlong news conference, where he argued the plea deal he brokered during his time as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida shielded dozens of Epstein’s victims, some as young as 14 years old, from testifying.
“Most had significant concerns about their identities being revealed,” Acosta said of the girls. “The acts that they had faced were horrible and they didn't want people to know about them.”
Acosta said the deal was meant to "put Epstein behind bars, ensure he registered as a sexual offender, provide victims with the means to seek restitution, and protect the public by putting them on notice that a sexual predator was in their midst."
The secretary has faced renewed scrutiny over the case after Epstein was arrested over the weekend on charges he engaged in the sex-trafficking of minors. The new charges were brought forward by federal prosecutors in Manhattan who reopened an investigation into the financier following a series of investigative reports by the Miami Herald that noted Epstein’s victims were not notified of the plea deal before it was finalized, as required by law.
Acosta said he kept the terms of the deal from the victims because he was concerned that a provision of the deal that allowed the victims to receive financial compensation from Epstein would be used against the victims by Epstein’s legal team should the case ever go to trial.
Acosta argued that a decade ago victims were treated “very different” than they are in “today’s world,” saying courts have since become more protective of sexual assault victims.
"Today’s world does not allow some of the victim shaming that takes place at trials," Acosta said.
Describing his relationship with President Donald Trump as “outstanding," Acosta insisted he would not step down from his post despite calls for his resignation from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other top Democrats.
“He has very publicly made clear that I've got his support,” Acosta said of Trump a day after the president told reporters at the White House that he felt “very badly” for Acosta and had no plans to oust him.
Acosta rejected claims that Epstein received special treatment because of his wealth and ties to powerful figures, including Trump and former President Bill Clinton, but he acknowledged some of the public outcry over the enforcement of the deal, calling it "appropriate."
Epstein served 13 months of an 18-month sentence in a Palm Beach County, Florida, jail and was permitted to leave the facility six days a week as part of a work release program.
"The work release was complete BS," Acosta said.
Acosta’s news conference came as the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), called on the labor secretary to testify before the panel on July 23.
“The hearing will examine your actions as United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida in authorizing a nonprosecution agreement for Jeffrey Epstein, as well as the finding by a federal court that you violated the Crime Victims’ Right Act by keeping this nonprosecution agreement secret from the victims of Mr. Epstein’s crimes,” Cummings wrote in a letter to Acosta.