Labor Secretary Acosta resigns amid Epstein plea deal controversy
Of all the things Alex Acosta has accomplished, he may now be remembered most for what he failed to do.
Acosta, the Miami-raised son of Cuban immigrants, graduated from Harvard Law School, rose to lead the Department of Justice’s civil rights division and pursued terrorists and corrupt politicians as the top federal prosecutor in South Florida. He became the celebrated dean of Florida International University’s law school before his ascension in 2017 to U.S. Secretary of Labor.
But at the pinnacle of his career, Acosta’s decision a dozen years earlier to drop a federal sex trafficking case against accused serial sex predator Jeffrey Epstein would prove to be his downfall. On Friday, standing on the White House lawn next to President Donald Trump — who was once Epstein’s neighbor in Palm Beach — Acosta announced his resignation.
“I do not think it is right and fair for this administration’s labor department to have Epstein as the focus rather than the incredible economy that we have today,” Acosta, 50, explained to reporters. “So I called the president this morning. I told him I thought the right thing was to step aside.”
Trump said Acosta’s deputy, Patrick Pizzella, will take over as acting secretary on July 19.
Though Acosta said it was his decision to resign, the announcement came just two days after he held a press conference where he spent nearly an hour defending the plea deal his office hashed out while he served as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
The non-prosecution agreement halted a federal investigation into sex trafficking allegations and allowed Epstein to walk out of a Palm Beach County jail in 2009 after serving 13 months on state prostitution charges. Epstein’s sentence also allowed his valet to pick him up six days a week and transport him to his West Palm Beach office.
The deal was highlighted last year by the Miami Herald’s investigative series Perversion of Justice that outlined Acosta’s role in the Epstein case — and especially his acquiescence to a demand by the hedge fund manager’s legal team to keep the resolution of the case secret from three dozen underage victims identified at the time by the FBI. Controversy over the deal erupted again this week after Epstein was arrested Saturday and charged with sex trafficking minors in New York after flying into Teterboro Airport in New Jersey aboard his private plane.
Scrutiny of the non-prosecution agreement Acosta’s office cut with Epstein’s attorneys is unlikely to fade, even with his resignation. A Department of Justice probe into how the agreement was crafted continues. And more than a dozen new women have come forward since Epstein’s latest arrest to say they were abused by the politically connected financial manager, who denies charges that he lured teenage girls into his Manhattan and Palm Beach mansions and paid them for nude massages and sex acts.
Before his resignation, House Democrats from two committees urged Acosta to appear before them and explain Epstein’s plea deal. And U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a South Florida Democrat who sits on the House Oversight committee, said she plans to continue pushing for answers.
“They can’t just ignore laws and cut secret deals and screw over victims because they are afraid of the high-powered attorneys on the other side or because they have a wealthy, well-connected accused they want to coddle and take care of,” Wasserman Schultz said.
Bradley Edwards, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represents some of Epstein’s accusers, said the resignation Friday does not answer all of the questions that he and his clients have for the former prosecutor.
“We want to sit down with him and have him talk to us and explain why he did what he did,” Edwards said, adding: “What we really want to know is if there was somebody above him that ordered that victims not be notified. Was there someone else involved in scuttling the case?”
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Local Reporting Makes a Difference
In her year-long investigation of Palm Beach multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein, Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown tracked down more than 60 women who said they were victims of abuse and revealed the full story behind the sweetheart deal cut by Epstein’s powerhouse legal team.
Since the Herald published ‘Perversion of Justice’ in November 2018, a federal judge ruled the non-prosecution agreement brokered by then South Florida U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta was illegal, and last week Epstein was arrested on sex trafficking charges in New York state. And on July 12, Acosta resigned as U.S. Secretary of Labor.
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Before the Miami Herald published its Perversion of Justice series in late November, Acosta, a Republican, received relatively scant criticism over the Epstein deal during his time as a member of Trump’s Cabinet. He drew public praise from Trump over his job as labor secretary and seemed poised to continue a notable career.
The former Bush administration protégé displayed all the marks of success from a young age. He graduated early from the private Gulliver Preparatory Academy in Miami en route to a Harvard education that landed him in a pipeline to the Department of Justice. He served as assistant attorney general in charge of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department between 2003 and 2005, where colleagues said he was highly regarded.
He was nominated and confirmed as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida in 2005. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, for whom Acosta had clerked a decade earlier when Alito was on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, participated in Acosta’s swearing-in ceremony.
Acosta’s return to South Florida, despite his roots here, was met with suspicion by some federal prosecutors because of his scant experience trying civil or criminal cases. But David Weinstein, a Miami lawyer who served as chief of the narcotics and national security sections when Acosta was the U.S. attorney, told the Herald that Acosta worked to overcome the reservations of his colleagues, overseeing some of the district’s biggest cases in several areas, including terrorism, drug trafficking, money laundering and fraud.
“Over time he changed that perception,” Weinstein said.
During Acosta’s four-year tenure, the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecuted cases against al Qaida-trained terrorist Jose Padilla, GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Liberian torturer Chuckie Taylor Jr., and Colombian cocaine kingpins Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela.
His office also prosecuted hundreds of healthcare, banking and mortgage fraud offenders involved in billions of dollars of scams, including prominent Swiss bank UBS for establishing secret offshore bank accounts for U.S. clients to avoid paying federal income taxes.
Acosta touted his office’s prosecutions of sex trafficking and sex tourism cases involving minors, as well as internet child pornography cases. A few months before executing Epstein’s deal, Acosta’s office sent out a news release announcing the prosecution of a Miami Beach father who was sentenced to 40 years in prison for traveling to Cambodia to pay for sex with three underage girls.
But the case against Epstein — perhaps now the most notorious sex offender in the United States — has haunted him.
Acosta, who was asked only sparingly to explain the deal during his confirmation hearing, sought to defend himself Wednesday. He spent 53 minutes on national TV arguing that his office was forced to choose between a trial that would have been a “roll of the dice” and a plea deal that guaranteed Epstein registered as a sex offender and paid damages to dozens of victims.
Acosta blamed lenient state prosecutors in Palm Beach County for undercutting federal prosecution efforts, although the state attorney at the time, Barry Krischer, said afterward that Acosta was trying to “rewrite history.” Acosta also said he was concerned about revictimizing some of Epstein’s accusers, saying that defense attorneys grilled them during interviews.
“Today our judges do not allow victim shaming by defense attorneys,” said Acosta, who avoided apologizing to Epstein’s victims for the way his office handled the case. “I know that my former colleagues, the men and women of my office, wanted to help them. I wanted to help them. That is why we intervened.”
But while his arguments drew immediate praise from the White House, it did little to diminish the pressure. Two days later, he was out.
“Good riddance,” Miami Congresswoman Donna Shalala, a Democrat, said Friday, when asked about Acosta’s resignation. “It’s about time. What he did was unacceptable as a law enforcement official and his explanation was ludicrous.”
U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Miami, said it was clear Acosta had to resign once a Miami judge ruled in February that his office had violated a federal law protecting victims’ rights when it kept Epstein’s plea deal secret from his accusers. “It was inconceivable that he continued in his post, such a high level post, when as U.S. attorney he failed to follow the rules.”
Mucarsel-Powell attributed Acosta’s resignation to a change in American culture.
“There’s a lot of arrogance around the men surrounding the president and his appointees,” she said. “They think they can get away with it but we are still living in the United States of America where no one is above the law and the pressure was such that he realized that he was not going to be able to remain in that position.”
Trump on Friday dismissed the controversy surrounding the Epstein deal, which he said “people were happy with” 12 years ago. As he had all week, Trump praised Acosta for his performance as labor secretary. After Acosta’s defiant press conference on Wednesday, during which he argued that he had been a champion for Epstein’s victims, Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said the Cabinet member had explained himself well.
David O. Markus, a Miami defense attorney and Democrat, believes that Acosta’s affiliation with Trump was a greater problem for Acosta than his handling of the Epstein case.
“If he was still a law school dean, there wouldn’t have been an angry mob directed at him,” Markus said.
But even now, a dozen years after Epstein’s plea deal, the ramifications of the arrangement seem to be just beginning.
In a motion Thursday seeking Epstein’s release from jail while awaiting trial, defense attorneys argued that his South Florida plea deal immunized him from much of the case brought by the Southern District of New York. Meanwhile, it’s possible that a professional misconduct investigation by the Department of Justice could find that other members of the federal law enforcement agency oversaw or signed off on Epstein’s plea deal.
Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, the Republican whose demands led to the federal probe, said Friday that “this isn’t over until … the Department of Justice never again agrees to any settlement this indifferent to child rape.”
Details of new allegations also continue to trickle out as Epstein prepares for his bond hearing Monday in New York. Prosecutors say they found a collection of what appeared to be hundreds or thousands of nude photos of underage women when they executed a search warrant on his Manhattan residence after his arrest. And they believe there may be hundreds of victims abused by Epstein, who has several homes on the mainland U.S. and in Paris and a private island in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
On Friday, prosecutors in New York alleged that in the days following the Miami Herald’s publication of the Perversion of Justice series, Epstein made wire transfers of $100,000 and $250,000 to alleged co-conspirators to whom immunity was granted as part of Epstein’s South Florida plea deal. Prosecutors say the transfers suggest Epstein was trying to buy off people “who might provide information against him.”
Trump continued to face questions Friday about his own relationship with his former neighbor, who traveled abroad with former President Bill Clinton and whose Palm Beach mansion was located a short distance from the current president’s private club. Before shaking Acosta’s hand Friday outside the White House and boarding Marine One, Trump confirmed a story that he’d banned Epstein in the early 2000s from Mar-a-Lago after the two had a falling out.
“I didn’t want anything to do with him. That was many, many years ago,” Trump told reporters. ”Other people, they went all over with him. They went to his island. They went all over the place. He was very well known in Palm Beach. His island, whatever his island was, wherever it is, I was never there.”
McClatchy DC reporter Michael Wilner contributed to this report.