California Democrats to Trump: Labor Secretary Acosta Must Resign Over Sex Trafficking Case

U.S. Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta speaks during a press conference July 10, 2019, at the Labor Department in Washington, D.C. He discussed his role in the sexual abuse case of Jeffrey Epstein, who is accused of sex trafficking. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Nearly 70 members of Congress, including many California Democrats, urged President Trump on Wednesday to “immediately demand” the resignation of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, whose handling of a sex trafficking case when he was a prosecutor has come under intense scrutiny after the suspect was indicted earlier this week on similar charges.

Acosta is being criticized for his role in a secret 2008 plea deal he signed when he was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida that let Jeffrey Epstein avoid federal prosecution on charges he molested teenage girls. The victims were never told of the deal, and Epstein served 13 months in a work-release program — which allowed him to leave jail six days a week for 12 hours day.

The Miami Herald exposed the deal and the allegations that Epstein sexually abused nearly three dozen girls, mostly 13 to 16 years old, at his Palm Beach mansion from 1999 to 2006.

Prosecutors in New York on Monday brought new child sex trafficking charges alleging Epstein, a wealthy hedge fund manager, abused dozens of underage girls in the early 2000s, paying them hundreds of dollars in cash for massages, then molesting them at his homes in Florida and New York.

“What is beyond the pale is the fact that a U.S. attorney was corrupted by power and money and influence of a defendant who was the perpetrator and was accommodating to that perpetrator,” said Bay Area congresswoman Jackie Speier.

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Speier and nearly 70 other congressional Democrats, including many from the Bay Area, signed the letter calling for Acosta’s resignation.

“... Acosta severely mishandled Epstein’s case by secretly arranging an extremely lenient plea deal, showing an utter disregard for the law and those he was charged with representing,” the letter said. “Because of his central role in this miscarriage of justice, Secretary Acosta has no place serving as a top official in the executive branch enforcing our nation’s laws.”

Speier said the House Committee on Oversight and Reform has asked Acosta to testify in a public hearing on July 23. It will also hold a hearing to give victims a chance to tell their stories, which had been prevented by nondisclosure agreements, she said.

Acosta on Wednesday defended his handling of the case at a news conference at Labor Department headquarters, saying “we believe that we proceeded appropriately and that “facts are being overlooked.”

"We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail," he said. "That was the focus."

Pressed on whether he had regrets, Acosta repeatedly suggested that circumstances had changed in the years since the plea.

"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."

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Trump has defended Acosta, praising his work as Labor secretary and saying he felt "very badly" for him "because I've known him as being somebody that works so hard and has done such a good job." Still, he said, he would be looking at the circumstances of the case "very closely."

Trump, who had once praised Epstein as "a terrific guy," disassociated himself on Tuesday, saying the two had a falling out 15 or so years ago and hadn't spoken since.

In a 2002 New York magazine article, Trump described Epstein as a "terrific guy" who was “a lot of fun to be with.”

Epstein has pleaded not guilty to the charges. If convicted, he could be imprisoned for the rest of his life.

KQED's Peter Jon Shuler, The Associated Press and NPR contributed to this report.

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