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With Epstein in jail again, Acosta is out as Trump’s labor secretary

By David Smiley and Jay Weaver • Updated Jul 14, 2019 at 1:11 AM

Alex Acosta, the U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Trump administration, is resigning six days after accused child sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein was arrested and charged in New York. The resignation of the former top prosecutor in South Florida comes a dozen years after his decision to forge a lenient plea deal in a sex crime case against Epstein in Florida.

President Donald Trump came out with Acosta at the White House at 9:34 a.m. and said Acosta called him Friday morning to say he’s resigning. Though Acosta spent nearly an hour Wednesday defending his handling of Epstein’s South Florida case in 2007 and 2008, Trump said the decision to resign was Acosta’s.

“I want to thank Alex Acosta. He was a great great secretary,” Trump said before shaking Acosta’s hand.

Acosta, the Miami-raised son of Cuban immigrants graduated from Harvard law, rose to lead the Department of Justice’s civil rights division under President George W. Bush and served as the top federal prosecutor in South Florida. He became dean of Florida International University’s law school before his ascension in 2017 to U.S. Secretary of Labor.

But of all the things he accomplished, Acosta now may be remembered most for what he failed to do.

Acosta was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida during the mid-2000s when police learned of accusations that Epstein lured underage girls to his Palm Beach mansion and paid them to engage in nude massages and sex acts. Police, concerned that Epstein was going to be let off light by state prosecutors, went to the FBI. But Acosta’s office ultimately allowed Epstein to plead to lesser state charges and granted him and co-conspirators immunity in exchange for victims’ restitution and his registration as a sex offender.

“The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific,” Acosta recently tweeted, as he defended the 2007 non-prosecution agreement that ended a federal investigation in South Florida and allowed the billionaire to serve just 13 months in a Palm Beach County jail on charges of soliciting prostitution involving a minor.

“With the evidence available more than a decade ago, federal prosecutors insisted that Epstein go to jail, register as a sex offender and put the world on notice that he was a sexual predator. Now that new evidence and additional testimony is available, the NY prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice.”

Before the Miami Herald published its Perversion of Justice series in November, highlighting Acosta’s role in negotiating an initially secret plea deal that has now been deemed illegal by a federal judge in Miami, Acosta had drawn little criticism while a member of Trump’s cabinet.

The Epstein controversy, though, appears to have changed that. According to Politico, Acosta critics in the White House, including Trump’s chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, used the situation to try to force Acosta out over frustrations that the labor secretary has been too slow to eliminate Obama-era red tape. Mulvaney has denied the report.

It was only Tuesday that Trump seemed to give Acosta credit for the humming economy, praising him as an “excellent secretary of labor.” Acosta, the only Hispanic member of Trump’s Cabinet, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate by a 60 to 38 vote in April of 2017 after Trump’s first nominee dropped out.

Acosta, speaking to reporters next to Trump Friday at the White House, said the economy is great and “that’s what this administration needs to focus” on. Trump said Acosta is a “great labor secretary, not a good one.”

Of Acosta’s news conference this week, during which he spent 53 minutes arguing that he had actually been a champion for dozens of underage girls who say they were victimized by Epstein years ago in South Florida, Trump said “he explained” his decision on Epstein.

Until recently, Acosta’s tenure as a faithful Republican public servant had been a continuation of a successful decades-long career in the federal government and as dean of Florida International University’s school of law.

“If he was still a law school dean, there wouldn’t have been an angry mob directed at him,” David O. Markus, a prominent Miami defense attorney and liberal Democrat, told the Miami Herald Friday. “But he was in Trump’s cabinet. And so a bad, but not corrupt, deal that he struck over 10 years ago was used as a pretext to take him down.”

Markus has previously defended Acosta amid the fallout over the Epstein case, describing him as a “fair and tough” prosecutor who did a “really good” job as Trump’s labor secretary.

The 50-year-old former Bush administration protégé seemed marked for 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, 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 a judge 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 prosecutors because of his scant experience trying civil or criminal cases. But Acosta displayed a pragmatic side by setting out to win over his colleagues in the U.S. attorney’s office and federal law enforcement.

During his four-year tenure, the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecuted major figures in drug trafficking, terrorism and fraud cases such as 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 also touted his office’s prosecutions of sex trafficking and sex tourism cases involving minors, as well as internet child pornography cases.

But it was the case against Epstein — perhaps now the most notorious sex offender in the United States — that still haunts him today.

In 2006, Epstein was arrested in Palm Beach County and accused of soliciting prostitution. Local police, angry that the state attorney’s office was going to allow Epstein to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge and get off with a fine, brought their case to the FBI and Acosta’s office.

A subsequent federal investigation turned up a mountain of damning accusations suggesting that Epstein, with the help of his own employees, had manipulated teenage girls as young as 14 into everything from nude massages to intercourse. Acosta’s office at one point prepared a 53-count indictment alleging Epstein was at the center of a sex-trafficking ring.

But in 2007, Acosta agreed to a rare non-prosecution agreement with Epstein’s team of high-powered lawyers. The agreement granted Epstein and his potential co-conspirators immunity in exchange for pleading guilty to state prostitution charges involving solicitation of minors for sex. Epstein served 13 months in a Palm Beach County jail on a sentence that allowed him to leave jail and be chauffeured to his West Palm Beach office six days a week for 12 hours out of the day.

Acosta has since defended the plea agreement as a difficult decision that he made in order to ensure that Epstein would serve jail time and register as a sex offender. Epstein was also required to pay six-figure damages to each of more than three dozen victims.

In an opinion piece that ran February in the Miami Herald, attorney Jeffrey Sloman, who had been Acosta’s second-in-command in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, defended Acosta’s decision, arguing that many of Epstein’s victims were “terrified to cooperate against him.” He said Acosta’s office worked hard to bring a federal case against Epstein, but had to weigh the chances of prosecution and the potential for “revictimization” of Epstein’s victims.

“Some hired lawyers to avoid appearing before a grand jury. One of the key witnesses moved to Australia and refused to return calls from us. We also researched and discussed significant legal impediments to prosecuting what was, at heart, a local sex abuse case,” Sloman wrote. “That said, some have mistakenly suggested that our office kowtowed to Epstein’s high-priced defense lawyers or, worse, that his lawyers intimidated us into submission.”

Acosta, though, has never so fully defended himself. He has not responded to Miami Herald requests to interview him about the case. He touched only lightly on the plea agreement during his confirmation proceedings. During an April congressional appropriations committee, he argued that securing jail time and Epstein’s lifetime registration as a sex offender was a positive outcome.

“The bottom line is this: Mr. Jeffrey Epstein, a billionaire, served time in jail and is now a registered sex offender,” Acosta wrote in a 2011 letter intended for the public and news media. “He has been required to pay his victims restitution, though restitution clearly cannot compensate for the crime.”

“And we know much more today about his crimes because the victims have come forward to speak out,” he wrote. “Some may disagree with the prosecutorial judgments made in this case, but those individuals are not the ones who at the time reviewed the evidence available for trial and assessed the likelihood of success.”

Acosta’s handling of Epstein’s plea agreement also remains the subject of an ongoing Department of Justice review. Trump, while defending Acosta Tuesday at the White House, seemed to allude to the review when he noted “we’re going to look at it very carefully.”

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©2019 Miami Herald

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