WASHINGTON—A Massachusetts Democratic congresswoman on Wednesday said Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta sided with a wealthy, politically connected businessman over the underage girls in a sexual-abuse case, when Mr. Acosta served as a federal prosecutor a dozen years ago.
Mr. Acosta’s appearance before a House Appropriations subcommittee—a regular part of the budget process—largely focused on labor policy, but turned for several minutes to Mr. Acosta’s investigation of billionaire South Florida financier Jeffrey Epstein, during Mr. Acosta’s time as U.S. attorney in Miami.
Federal prosecutors overseeing the case, including Mr. Acosta, agreed in 2007 not to charge Mr. Epstein if he pleaded guilty to state charges that carried a lighter penalty. In February, a federal judge said those prosecutors violated the law by concealing the plea agreement from Mr. Epstein’s alleged victims. Mr. Epstein faced allegations that he paid a string of high-school-age girls—allegedly dozens of them and some younger than 16—for sexual encounters.
“The hideous truth has come out,” Rep. Katherine Clark (D., Mass.) said. “You choose wealthy and well-connected people, child rapists, over the victims in this case.” She asked Mr. Acosta how he could serve as labor secretary, a job which includes oversight of human-trafficking violations, when he “couldn’t fight for these girls.”
Mr. Acosta responded by saying the Justice Department has defended the actions of the U.S. attorney’s office for 12 years. In February, the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility announced that it was probing its handling of the Epstein case.
“The facts in this case were presented to a grand jury that recommended a charge that would have carried no jail time at all,” Mr. Acosta said. “At the end of the day, Mr. Epstein went to jail, Mr. Epstein was incarcerated. He registered as a sex offender. The world was put on notice, and the victims could seek restitution.”
Under the agreement with Mr. Epstein, who had been the target of a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe, federal prosecutors promised not to bring charges against him in Florida if, among other conditions, he pleaded guilty to two state prostitution-related felonies and served a 13-month sentence.
Ms. Clark asked Mr. Acosta if it was fair to describe Mr. Epstein as a monster.
“He engaged in vile crimes, yes,” Mr. Acosta said.
Rep. Lois Frankel (D., Fla.) said her South Florida community is upset about the handling of the Epstein case.
“I think we can all agree, a very vile disgusting man really got off the hook,” she said.
After Ms. Fankel’s questioning period expired, Rep. Tom Cole (R., Okla.) yielded some of his time to allow Mr. Acosta to explain further.
“I understand the frustration.” Mr. Acosta said. “I think it’s important to understand that he was going to get off entirely. It was the work of our office that resulted in him going to jail.”
Mr. Acosta went on to say he condemned the terms of Mr. Epstein’s incarceration, including his ability to have work release, but that was decided by Florida, not federal, authorities.
“I understand why folks are upset,” he said. “That was Florida law, not a federal decision.”
Mr. Cole said he found Mr. Acosta to be “a person of great integrity, great ability and great skill. The president made a wise choice when he choose you for this position.”
The federal judge concluded that concealing the deal violated the 2004 Crime Victims’ Rights Act, a statutory bill of rights for victims of federal crimes.
The two sides have until May 10 to confer about possible remedies.
Original story here.