Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta was confronted by Democratic lawmakers Wednesday over his decision as a federal prosecutor to sign off on a plea deal in a sex trafficking case involving multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein.
The exchange at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing marked the first time Acosta has been questioned publicly about the case since a judge ruled in February that the 2008 arrangement he oversaw as a U.S. attorney in South Florida had broken the law because his office failed to properly notify victims.
“You chose wealthy and well-connected people, child rapists, over the victims in this case,” said Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.), who noted that “the hideous truth has come out” about Acosta’s role in the case.
Clark cited the Epstein case as she questioned Acosta on his department’s decision to propose cutting the budget for one of its divisions tasked with combating human trafficking from $68 million to $18.5 million.
“This isn’t the first time you have ignored human trafficking,” Clark said. “If you as U.S. attorney could not fight for these girls, how, as secretary of labor, can you tell this panel and the American people that you can responsibly oversee this budget [and] the Department of Labor, including human trafficking?”
Acosta responded that human trafficking is “an incredibly important issue” and said the Justice Department had long defended the plea deal.
“Epstein was incarcerated,” Acosta said. “He registered as a sex offender. The world was put on notice that he was a sex offender, and the victims received restitution.”
The 2008 plea deal stemmed from a federal investigation of Epstein focused on alleged sex trafficking and molestation of dozens of underage girls. Before the deal, prosecutors drafted a 53-page federal indictment that included sex trafficking charges, which could have placed Epstein in prison for life.
Epstein’s plea agreement allowed him to instead plead guilty to two state felony solicitation charges, casting the victims as prostitutes. The deal led to a 13-month stay in county jail during which Epstein was allowed to leave custody six days a week, 12 hours a day, for work.
Acosta, 50, has received support from his boss, President Trump, who in February called him a “fantastic labor secretary.” On Wednesday, Acosta argued that Epstein would have faced even lighter punishment had the plea deal not been struck.
“I understand the frustration,” he said. “I think it’s important for people to know he was going to get off with no jail time or restitution. It was the work of our office that resulted in him going to jail. It was the work of our office that resulted in him having to register as a sex offender.”
The deal has received renewed media and legal scrutiny in recent months. In February, Judge Kenneth A. Marra of the Federal District Court in West Palm Beach ruled that the failure by Acosta’s office to notify victims in advance of the deal prevented the victims from being able to exercise their legal right to object before the deal took effect. Marra has set a deadline of May 10 for attorneys for two victims, who filed the lawsuit that led to the ruling, and attorneys for Epstein to propose an alternative deal.
The ruling could ultimately nullify the plea deal.
The Justice Department in February opened an investigation into its handling of the Epstein case after a bipartisan group of senators, led by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), pressed for answers about the plea agreement.
In March, The Washington Post reported that, although Epstein’s alleged victims were as young as 14, the only minor he was convicted of soliciting was 16 when the offenses began. The decision to charge Epstein with a crime involving an older teen has eased his obligations to register as a sex offender. For example, Epstein does not have to register in New Mexico, where he owns a ranch, because his victim was not under 16.
At the start of Wednesday’s hearing, the subcommittee chair, Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), acknowledged that Acosta was coming before the committee “under a cloud of controversy” given his role in the Epstein case.
But she pledged to keep the hearing focused on budgetary concerns, telling Acosta, “You are still a labor secretary who must answer for the proposed budget.”
Other Democrats, however, grilled Acosta on his commitment to combating human trafficking and pressed him for answers on his handling of the Epstein case.
“This is horrifying and sick stuff,” Clark said of Epstein’s alleged behavior. “Mr. Epstein raped and assaulted these girls. He recruited them out of shopping malls. He had employees that helped with this. And then he invited his friends to do the same. . . . Epstein and his friends destroyed these girls’ lives.”
She took issue with Acosta agreeing to solicitation charges, which effectively cast the victims as prostitutes. “I’m sure you know there is no such thing as child prostitution with underaged girls,” Clark said.
She also pressed Acosta on his decision not to tell victims the government had struck a deal not to prosecute Epstein.
“The judge found you broke the law, Secretary Acosta, when you chose not to tell the victims about this deal, and that you gave them the impression that this investigation was ongoing. . . . Do you regret making this deal in secret?” Clark asked.
Acosta did not directly reply, saying only that he takes sex trafficking seriously and that the Justice Department has defended the plea deal.
Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), who is among the more than a dozen Democrats who have sent a letter to the Justice Department demanding an investigation into Acosta’s handling of the matter, questioned how a case with dozens of victims could get reduced to just two state charges.
She told Acosta that “many people in my community are upset because it seems like a sexual predator is out on the loose.”
Acosta pledged to assign a senior-level staff member to work with Frankel’s office on human trafficking issues.
Acosta declined an interview request from The Washington Post.
After the hearing, Frankel voiced dissatisfaction with Acosta’s response, arguing that lawmakers didn’t “get the full story here on what happened.”
“This isn’t the last you all are going to hear about this. . . . We want to find out what happened, because it sounds like there was a terrible injustice done,” she said.
Lisa Rein contributed to this report.