Alex Acosta, embattled labor secretary, defends handling of Jeffrey Epstein case — live updates – CBS News

Embattled Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta defended his handling of a decade-old plea deal with billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein on sex crime charges when Acosta was the U.S. attorney in Florida’s Southern District. Acosta is facing renewed scrutiny and criticism over the case after Epstein was arrested on new federal sex trafficking charges in New York last week. 

The plea deal reached with Epstein in 2008 meant he dodged federal charges and spent just 13 months in county jail on state prostitution charges. He was allowed to leave six days a week for work.

At a nearly hour-long press conference at the Labor Department on Wednesday, Acosta described Epstein’s actions as “despicable,” insisting Epstein might have gotten away with no jail time if his office hadn’t gotten involved in the case that was being handled by the state. But Acosta struggled to answer questions about whether he would handle the case differently today, offering no apology to Epstein’s victims. 

Asked if he would make the same deal now, Acosta responded: “We live in a very different world. Today’s world treats victims very, very differently.”

Acosta claimed many alleged victims were reticent to come forward at the time, making the case more difficult to prosecute. It’s often difficult for prosecutors in such cases, Acosta said, to decide between accepting a guilty plea or risk going to trial, if a trial is “viewed as the roll of a dice.” 

APTOPIX Financier Labor Secretary

Labor Secretary Alex Acosta speaks during a media availability at the Department of Labor on Wednesday, July 10, 2019, in Washington.

Alex Brandon / AP


“Facts are important and facts are being overlooked,” Acosta said, defending how he and his colleagues at the time handled the plea agreement and case overall. 

CBS News White House correspondent Ben Tracy asked Acosta if he believes he got the best plea deal possible and whether he has any regrets. A federal judge in February said prosecutors had violated victims’ rights by keeping the non-prosecution agreement secret.

“We believe that we proceeded appropriately, that based on the evidence … There was value to getting a guilty plea and having him register,” Acosta responded. “Look, no regrets is a very hard question.”

Epstein’s actions, Acosta said, “absolutely” deserved harsher punishment. The new charges, brought by prosecutors in the Southern District in New York, allege Acosta abused dozens of young girls for years at his residences in Manhattan and Florida. Investigators allegedly found a trove of inappropriate photos at his home, including photos of underage girls. Acosta has pleaded not guilty.

President Trump encouraged Acosta to hold the press conference, an administration official told CBS News’ Fin Gomez.

Acosta addressed his handling of the case for the first time on Twitter Tuesday. 

“The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific, and I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence,” Acosta tweeted.

Mr. Trump has defended Acosta’s work as labor secretary, but suggested Tuesday his administration is looking “very carefully” at Acosta’s handling of the Epstein case. The president himself has faced questions over his relationship with Epstein, since the two used to interact and Epstein used to visit Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club. 

“I knew him like everybody in Palm Beach knew him,” Mr. Trump said of Epstein Tuesday. “People in Palm Beach knew him. He was a fixture in Palm Beach. I had a falling out with him a long time ago. I don’t think I’ve spoken to him for 15 years. I wasn’t a fan — I was not — yeah, a long time ago. I’d say maybe 15 years.”

“I was not a fan of his. That I can tell you,” the president continued. “I was not a fan of his. So, I feel very badly for actually for Secretary Acosta because I’ve known him as being somebody that works so hard and has done such a good job. I feel very badly about that whole situation. But we’re going to be looking at that and looking at it very closely.”

The House Oversight Committee has invited Acosta to testify on the plea deal on July 23. Acosta has yet to say whether he’ll appear. 

— CBS News’ Paula Reid and Arden Farhi contributed to this report.

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