Jul. 9--U.S. Labor Secretary and former South Florida U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta is facing new calls for his ouster after prosecutors in New York indicted politically connected financier Jeffrey Epstein on charges he operated a sex trafficking ring of underage girls in Manhattan and Palm Beach in the mid 2000s -- allegations similar to those Acosta declined to bring a decade ago as part of a secret plea deal.
Epstein, 66, faces up to 45 years in prison if convicted of charges that he manipulated numerous underage girls into engaging in sex acts for money from 2002 to 2005. Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said the penalty, if imposed, would be "basically a life sentence."
That's in stark contrast to the 13 months Epstein served in Palm Beach County jail in 2008 after Acosta's office investigated allegations that Epstein had paid dozens of girls for nude massages and sex acts in his Palm Beach, New York and U.S. Virgin Islands mansions.
Acosta had drawn up a 53-count indictment but, after meeting with one of Epstein's attorneys in 2007, agreed to close the case without federal charges in exchange for a guilty plea to state prostitution charges that required the wealthy businessman to register as a sex offender and pay damages to 40 victims. The agreement included immunity for potential co-conspirators, and Epstein was allowed to leave the jail six days a week to go to his office.
"It's still a very important case and it means a great deal to the alleged victims that they have their day in court," Berman said Monday when asked why his office was prosecuting a case from 14 years ago. "We want to ensure they have their day in court by bringing these charges."
Acosta initially came under intense pressure last year after the Miami Herald's "Perversion of Justice" investigation revealed the scope of the allegations against Epstein and the extent to which Acosta's office worked with Epstein's attorneys on his plea deal, which was entered into by Acosta without the knowledge of Epstein's victims. Members of Congress demanded an investigation, prompting the U.S. Department of Justice to assign its Office of Professional Responsibility to conduct a review that remains ongoing.
Acosta, who was the dean of Florida International University's law school at the time of his appointment to President Donald Trump's Cabinet, has repeatedly refused to comment to the Herald about the case, and a Department of Labor spokeswoman redirected requests for comment Monday to the Justice Department. A federal judge ruled this year that Acosta erred by keeping Epstein's non-prosecution agreement secret from Epstein's victims, but the Justice Department has since argued that there are no grounds to invalidate the plea deal.
"At the end of day, Mr. Epstein went to jail. Epstein was incarcerated. He registered as a sex offender," Acosta said during an April appearance before a House Appropriations subcommittee. "The world was put on notice that he was a sex offender. And the victims received restitution."
But Berman said Monday that his office is not bound by the terms of the agreement. And the details of the new indictment, unsealed Monday, renewed calls from Democrats in Congress for Acosta to resign or be fired.
U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Miami, joined the chorus for the first time, creating unanimity among the South Florida congressional delegation for Acosta's ouster.
"In light of the new indictment brought against Jeffrey Epstein by the Southern District of New York, I believe that Alex Acosta should immediately resign as U.S. Secretary of Labor, and I repeat that if he does not resign, the President should fire him," Miami Congresswoman Donna Shalala said Monday. "Before serving as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Secretary Acosta swore an oath to faithfully discharge the duties of his office. In failing to vigorously prosecute a serial child predator such as Jeffrey Epstein, Secretary Acosta abrogated his duty as a prosecutor and the chief federal law enforcement officer in South Florida."
A spokesman for Republican Florida Sen. Rick Scott reiterated that Scott wants to review the ongoing Justice investigation into Acosta's involvement before coming to any conclusions. Scott's counterpart, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio -- who introduced Acosta at his confirmation hearing -- said on Twitter that there should be consequences for Acosta and others if the Justice Department finds wrongdoing related to Epstein's plea agreement.
"What Epstein is accused of is despicable," Rubio tweeted. "If DOJ probe uncovers misconduct in Florida plea agreement those responsible should face consequences. The Florida plea agreement doesn't apply to the new charges in NY & I'm confident justice will be served."
The White House did not comment on the latest Epstein indictment, and the Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.
The case has been handled by the Southern District of New York's public corruption unit, although Berman cautioned reporters during a press conference from reading too much into the decision to assign that unit to the case. Berman also said investigators serving a search warrant on Epstein's Manhattan townhouse found nude pictures of women who appeared to be underage.
Bill Sweeney, the assistant director of charge of the FBI's New York office, said he's frustrated with "the excuses," "ignorance" and "willful blindness" to the trauma inflicted on the victims in this case and others.
"Too often, adults in our society have turned a blind eye to this type of criminal behavior alleged here," Sweeney said.
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