Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta faced congressional scrutiny Wednesday over whether he is able to safeguard children from illegal labor practices and combat human trafficking, as several lawmakers grilled him over a lenient plea deal he gave to a wealthy New York businessman suspected of operating a child sex trafficking ring.
Acosta, in his first appearance before lawmakers since the scandal over the plea intensified after a series of articles in the Miami Herald called Perversion of Justice, appeared before a budget appropriations subcommittee, ostensibly to testify about the Labor Department’s 2020 budget. The budget calls for a 10 percent cut in programs affecting millions of American workers, as well as rollbacks in protections for those suffering from disabilities, a reduction in prison re-entry programs and an easing of restrictions on corporations that fail to pay minimum wages.
Acosta defended the cuts, saying the department’s agenda provides “greater investment in programs that work, eliminates programs that do not, and generally bolsters opportunities for working Americans through common-sense reforms.’’
Democratic lawmakers were concerned about a number of program cuts. Among them: a significant decrease in programs that combat human trafficking.
That opened the door for several of them to question Acosta about a sex-trafficking case he handled when he was a federal prosecutor in Miami a decade ago.
“This is not the first time you have ignored human trafficking,’’ said Massachusetts Democrat Katherine Clark.
Acosta, while U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, helped orchestrate an unusually light plea deal with Jeffrey Epstein, a politically connected New York hedge fund manager accused in 2005 of molesting and sexually assaulting dozens of girls, mostly ages 13 to 16, at his mansion in Palm Beach.
Instead of going to prison like most sex offenders in Florida, Epstein was given federal immunity and was allowed to plead guilty to two prostitution charges in state court. A number of other people involved in his operation were also immunized and never charged.
He served 13 months in the county jail. But had Acosta prosecuted him on sex-trafficking charges, Epstein could have gone to prison for the rest of his life.
In February of this year, a federal judge ruled that the deal that Acosta arranged was improper because federal prosecutors failed to comply with the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. It is not clear what happens next.
The deal, signed in 2007, was done in secret, and it was sealed so that no one could know how many girls Epstein abused or who else was involved in his scheme. Moreover, Acosta’s staff agreed to demands by Epstein’s lawyers that the victims not be made aware of the federal non-prosecution agreement until after it was signed and executed.
“The judge found you broke the law, Mr. Acosta, when you chose not to tell the victims about this deal and you gave them the impression that the investigation was ongoing,’’ said Clark at the hearing. “Was the judge right?’’
Acosta attempted to pivot, but Clark continued. “I asked you a yes or no question,’’ she demanded.
Rep. Lois Frankel, a Democrat whose constituents are in Palm Beach, quizzed Acosta about how it was that a sex abuser got off so easy.
“Many people in my community are upset that you allowed a sexual predator on the loose,’’ Frankel said. She is among a group of lawmakers who have asked for Acosta to resign. The Department of Justice is investigating the case to determine whether Acosta and other prosecutors committed any wrongdoing.
Acosta has never said why the deal was kept under wraps. At the hearing Wednesday, Acosta told lawmakers what he has repeatedly said for years: The deal ensured Epstein went to jail and had to register as a sex offender.
“Let me just say I understand the frustration, but if the state prosecuted him, he was going to get off entirely …it was the work of our office that resulted in him going to jail and it was the work of our office that made it so the world was put on notice that he is a sex offender.’’
One person involved in the case, who didn’t get the notice, however, was Palm Beach Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, who ran the jail. In his first comments on the controversial case, Bradshaw, in a wide-raging interview on Miami’s WLRN last week, said Epstein met the criteria for a liberal work release program, which meant he spent very little time in jail.
He was allowed to leave the county jail six days a week, and have his private driver take him to his office in downtown West Palm Beach, where he spent up to 12 hours a day.
“All we did was house him,’’ Bradshaw told Luis Hernandez, host of the station’s Sundial program. “He met the criteria for work release. He was not adjudicated as a violent sex offender — he wasn’t even adjudicated as a sex offender.’’
At the end of the congressional hearing, Republican Tom Cole, the ranking member of the committee, commended Acosta for the work he has done as labor secretary.
“You’re a person of great integrity and great skill…you have more than done your job,’’ Cole said.