WASHINGTON - U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta on Wednesday defended his actions more than a decade ago as a federal prosecutor in agreeing to a light jail sentence for billionaire hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein, who was accused in a child sex trafficking case.
"Without the work of our prosecutors, Epstein would have gotten away with" a lesser state charge that "would have let him avoid jail time," Acosta told reporters. "We did what we did because Epstein needed to go to jail."
"We believe we proceeded appropriately," Acosta said. "There is value to a sure guilty plea."
Some lawmakers, including the top two congressional Democrats, are demanding Acosta's resignation from President Donald Trump's Cabinet for his role in allowing Epstein to plead guilty in 2008 to Florida state prostitution charges, for which he served a 13-month term and most days was freed to work at his office in south Florida. He also was required to register as a sex offender and pay restitution to the underage girls he abused.
At the same time, a federal investigation in Miami was ended. This week, however, federal prosecutors in New York brought new charges, accusing Epstein of exploiting dozens of underage girls from 2002 to 2005, paying them hundreds of dollars for massages and demands for sex at his mansion on New York's Upper East Side and at his estate in Palm Beach, Florida. If convicted of the new charges, he could face 45 years in prison.
Acosta said the case in 2008 "was complex," with many of the victims too "scared and traumatized" to testify against Epstein at a possible trial.
"These cases weigh whether there is guaranteed jail" resulting from a guilty plea, or the uncertain outcome of a trial, he said.
Trump on Tuesday praised Acosta's performance as labor chief for the last 2 1/2 years, but said he was "very carefully" considering Acosta's role in the Epstein case.
The White House has not asked for his resignation and Acosta gave no indication he was about to quit, as demanded by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.
"I serve at the pleasure of the president, and if at some point he says you're not the right person, I respect that," Acosta said during a nearly hour-long news conference in Washington.
Two decades ago, Trump, whose Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach is not far from Epstein's mansion there, posed for pictures with him. Trump once told an interviewer Epstein was a "terrific guy. He's a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side."
But Trump told reporters at the White House on Tuesday he has not spoken with Epstein in 15 years and had a "falling out" with him, but offered no details.
"I was not a fan of his," Trump said.
The Epstein case drew new attention this week with the New York charges.
"I'm glad to see this happening now," Acosta said. "He's a bad man."
In Monday's indictment, Geoffrey Berman, a federal prosecutor in New York, accused Epstein of allegedly paying the girls hundreds of dollars for nude or partially nude massages that "increasingly were sexual in nature."
The prosecutor said Epstein often paid some of the victims, some as young as 14, to recruit other underage girls that he then also abused.
Despite the fact that the allegations against Epstein stem from incidents that occurred more than a decade ago, Berman said, "We want to make sure [the accusers] have their day in court by bringing these charges." In a court appearance, Epstein pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Epstein is a well-connected financier whose friends also included former President Bill Clinton and Britain's Prince Andrew, along with numerous other celebrities.