The indictment Monday of Jeffrey Epstein on sex trafficking charges has reignited questions about the way Alexander Acosta — now President Trump’s labor secretary — handled an earlier case against Epstein that resulted in a minimal sentence.
As U.S. attorney in Florida in 2007, Acosta negotiated a plea deal that led to two felony solicitation charges and 13 months in county jail for Epstein, with the billionaire financier allowed to work from his office six days a week. Epstein had been facing the possibility of life in prison. His alleged victims were not told about the deal.
On Monday, in the indictment issued in federal court in New York, Epstein faced charges resulting from allegations like those in the Florida case. The indictment says that “in both New York and Florida,” Epstein “perpetuated this abuse in similar ways.”
Acosta, through a spokesman, declined to comment. Labor Department spokesman Robert Bozzuto referred questions about Acosta’s role in the plea deal to the Justice Department. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
Officials at the White House, which has not made any public statements about the Epstein indictment, are nervous that Democrats will encourage women allegedly abused by Epstein to testify publicly before Congress, drawing attention to Acosta’s work on the plea deal, according to current and former administration officials.
Trump has no immediate plan to force out or fire Acosta, two White House officials said. Like others, the officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to relay internal discussions. A senior White House official said the administration would like to learn the contents of a Justice Department inquiry into Acosta before making any decision.
There was no substantial vetting done on Acosta until after Trump decided to nominate him, according to current and former administration officials.
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in a tweet Monday evening demanding that Acosta “step down,” said the plea deal Acosta negotiated with Epstein “was known by @POTUS when he appointed him to the cabinet.”
Despite the scrutiny of the plea deal and calls from several Democrats for him to resign, Acosta has not been summoned to testify before Congress specifically on this matter.
At his 2017 confirmation hearing, the only senator to ask him about the plea deal was Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
Acosta told Kaine that “professionals within a prosecutor’s office” decided on the deal, taking himself out of the negotiations. On Monday, Kaine called for Acosta’s ouster.
The secretary was also grilled during an April budget hearing by two Democrats about his role in the case.
On Monday, two House Democrats said the party now has more leverage to demand that Acosta testify.
“In the wake of the New York charges, there is resurgent interest in hearing from him about the dual system of justice in Florida,” said Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), who chairs a panel on civil rights and civil liberties on the House Oversight and Reform Committee. “Alex Acosta has some major reckoning to do.”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), who joined other Florida Democrats earlier this year in calling on Acosta to resign, renewed that call Monday.
“You would hope we would have a president that would care about making sure his secretary of labor didn’t have a terrible smudge like this on his record,” Wasserman Schultz said in an interview.
Several Republican members of Congress, however, said Monday that they supported Acosta or were reserving judgment about the labor secretary pending the Justice Department inquiry.
“At this point, I’m satisfied with his explanation,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said.
“If there’s more that comes out, I’ll be glad to look at it,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “But at this point I think it’s been looked at repeatedly, and I think everybody has reached the same conclusion.”
The House Judiciary and Oversight committees have seemed the most likely venues for any hearing. But none has been scheduled. Congressional Democrats have said privately that the committees are consumed by the Russia investigation and that having Epstein’s victims testify would be politically risky.
The Justice Department’s office of professional responsibility, which investigates misconduct of department employees, opened an ethics investigation in February into whether its attorneys — including Acosta — committed “professional misconduct” in pursuing the plea deal.
But the result has not been made public, and the status of the investigation is unclear. Regardless, since Acosta is no longer a Justice Department employee, any determination from the investigation may not affect him.
On policy matters, Democrats have been less critical of Acosta than other members of Trump’s Cabinet who have more forcefully implemented the president’s agenda, according to former Labor Department officials.
The 14-page federal indictment issued Monday in New York accuses Epstein of sex trafficking and abusing dozens of underage girls at his homes in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Fla., between 2002 and 2005.
Acosta’s handling of the initial case has been widely criticized. He signed off on a deal in which, in exchange for guilty pleas in state court to solicitation, Epstein served the 13-month sentence, registered as a sex offender and paid restitution to certain victims. The deal was initially sealed, keeping it secret until it was released as part of a 2015 lawsuit.
In addition, while the Florida investigation initially came to the attention of authorities because of a 14-year-old alleged victim, the only minor Epstein was convicted of soliciting was 16 years old, The Washington Post reported in March. The age difference eased his obligations to register as a sex offender.
Acosta in 2011 wrote a letter seeking to explain his reasoning, saying that he faced “a year-long assault on the prosecution and the prosecutors” by “an army of legal superstars.” He also wrote that defense lawyers “investigated individual prosecutors and their families, looking for personal peccadilloes that may provide a basis for disqualification.”
Acosta, who was Trump’s second choice for labor secretary and is the only Latino member of his Cabinet, is said by White House and Labor Department aides to enjoy a good relationship with the president, even though the agency typically has a low profile in Republican administrations.
But Acosta has nonetheless had a fraught relationship in recent months with two power centers in the White House whose influence has grown this year: acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and the Domestic Policy Council.
Mulvaney has demanded faster action from Cabinet secretaries on the lengthy process of reversing and relaxing Obama-era rules and regulations. He believes that Acosta has dragged his feet on rule rollbacks vital to the business community, according to several White House officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.
Emily Davies and Hailey Fuchs contributed to this report.