WASHINGTON — Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta defended his handling of Palm Beach billionaire Jeffrey Epstein's sex trafficking case more than a decade ago, saying he tried to avoid a deal that would've allowed the wealthy financier to walk free.
Acosta, a former federal prosecutor in South Florida, is under fire for his role in a 2008 plea deal that let Epstein avoid federal prosecution after allegations he molested teenage girls.
Epstein served 13 months in jail, but was allowed to leave regularly to work at his office. He also had to register as a sex offender.
"We believe that we proceeded appropriately," Acosta said at a news conference on Wednesday. "Based on the evidence, there was value to getting a guilty plea and having him register."
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Acosta said the case started as a state matter in Florida, and the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office was "ready to let Epstein walk free. No jail time. Nothing."
Acosta said federal prosecutors found that to be unacceptable and presented Epstein with an ultimatum of pleading guilty to more serious charges that required jail time and restitution.
"We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail," said Acosta. "He needed to go to jail."
Epstein pleaded not guilty on Monday to new child sex trafficking charges and could face up to 45 years in prison if convicted.
"He's a bad man and he needs to be put away," said Acosta, praising federal prosecutors for bringing new charges against Epstein.
President Donald Trump has applauded Acosta's work in his Cabinet and said he feels "very badly" for him, but said he'll be looking "very closely" at the matter.
Earlier this week, Acosta defended himself on Twitter, crediting "new evidence and additional testimony" uncovered by prosecutors in New York for providing "an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice."
On Wednesday, former Palm Beach Attorney Barry Krischer responded to Secretary Acostas's comments with the statement bellow.
As the State Attorney for Palm Beach County for 16 years (1993-2009), which included the entire period of the Epstein investigation, I can emphatically state that Mr. Acosta’s recollection of this matter is completely wrong. Federal prosecutors do not take a back seat to state prosecutors. That’s not how the system works in the real world.
The State Attorney’s Office took the Palm Beach Police Department’s investigation to a Grand Jury, and subpoenaed witnesses. The Grand Jury heard all of the evidence that was available at the time (which did not include later evidence that emerged from civil depositions) and returned a single count indictment of Felony Solicitation of Prostitution, a third-degree felony.
Subsequently, the U.S. Attorney’s Office produced a 53-page indictment that was abandoned after secret negotiations between Mr. Epstein’s lawyers and Mr. Acosta. The State Attorney’s Office was not a party to those meetings or negotiations, and definitely had no part in the federal Non-Prosecution Agreement and the unusual confidentiality arrangement that kept everything hidden from the victims. No matter how my office resolved the state charges, the U.S. Attorney’s Office always had the ability to file its own federal charges.
If Mr. Acosta was truly concerned with the State’s case and felt he had to rescue the matter, he would have moved forward with the 53-page indictment that his own office drafted. Instead, Mr. Acosta brokered a secret plea deal that resulted in a Non-Prosecution Agreement in violation of the Crime Victim’s Rights Act.
Mr. Acosta’s should not be allowed to rewrite history.
Barry E. Krischer
Former Palm Beach State Attorney Barry Krischer has responded to @SecretaryAcosta's comments today with a statement.— Andrew Lofholm (@AndrewLofholm) July 10, 2019
Acosta said if his office didn't take up the Epstein case, that Epstein would have only been charged with a misdemeanor, resulting in no jail time. @WPTV pic.twitter.com/AJek0TXHak
The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific, and I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence.— Secretary Acosta (@SecretaryAcosta) July 9, 2019
On Wednesday, one of Epstein's accusers spoke to NBC's 'Today' show, claiming the billionaire raped her at his New York home when she was just 15.
"He very forcefully brought me to the table and I just did what he told me to do. I was really scared," said Jennifer Araoz. "I was terrified and I was telling him to stop, please stop."
Araoz said she hasn't spoken to authorities because she feared retribution from the wealthy financier.
"If I wasn't afraid to come forward sooner, then maybe he wouldn't have done it to other girls," said Araoz. "I feel really guilty. To this day, I feel really guilty."
Epstein will be back in New York federal court on Thursday for a bail hearing.
WPTV and the Associated Press contributed to this report.