Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta said Friday he was stepping down from his position, following growing calls for his resignation over his role in a controversial plea deal that helped financier and alleged child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein avoid significant prison time.
Acosta made the announcement to reporters alongside President Donald Trump, adding that while he didn’t believe it was fair for the Epstein fallout to focus on him, it was “the right thing” to do.
Acosta has defended his negotiation of Epstein’s previous plea deal. The financier is now facing new charges from federal prosecutors in New York, and Acosta has come under increased scrutiny for his involvement the decade-old deal.
Here’s a look at Epstein and Acosta, and the accusations surrounding them.
Epstein, 66, is a wealthy financier and former teacher who began at Bear Stearns after having taught calculus and physics at The Dalton School, an independent school in New York. He went on to launch his own firm, J. Epstein & Co., later dubbed Financial Trust Co., according to USA Today. He’s often associated with the term “billionaire” — though Bloomberg reports that his net worth, and how he earned it, is a bit of a mystery. He has property across the world, including in New Mexico, Paris, and Palm Beach, and owns an island in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
He also has many connections to the rich, famous, and politically connected, including actor Kevin Spacey, Prince Andrew, former President Bill Clinton, and President Donald Trump.
“I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy,” Trump said in a 2002 New York magazine profile of the financier. “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. No doubt about it — Jeffrey enjoys his social life.”
In a statement, Clinton said he “knows nothing about the terrible crimes Jeffrey Epstein pleaded guilty to in Florida some years ago, or those with which he has been recently charged in New York," The Hill reported.
Epstein was arrested Saturday and charged with sex trafficking of minors and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of minors, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. An unsealed indictment alleges that Epstein recruited, exploited, and abused dozens of minors by engaging in sex acts at his homes in New York and Palm Beach from 2002 until 2005.
He gave his victims cash for “massages,” which became more sexual in nature. By paying others to recruit girls into his “network,” some of whom were as young as 14 years old, he “maintained a steady supply of new victims to exploit,” the indictment reads.
On Saturday, federal authorities seized a “vast trove of lewd photographs” of young-looking girls from his New York residence, according to CNBC. Epstein pleaded not guilty at an initial hearing Monday, and is being held pending another court appearance next week. If convicted, the financier could face up to 45 years in prison.
In 2008, Acosta, then the top federal prosecutor in Miami, secured what the Associated Press called as “extraordinary secret agreement” that earned Epstein about a year in jail, during which he was also allowed to work, after having pleaded guilty to lesser state prostitution-related charges. He also registered as a sex offender.
“While the charged conduct is from a number of years ago, the victims – then children and now young women – are no less entitled to their day in court,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said in a statement. "My Office is proud to stand up for these victims by bringing this indictment.”
Legal experts point to investigative reporting as helping the allegations come back to light, CNN reported.
“Prosecutors do read the newspaper every day,” former prosecutor Elie Honig told the news outlet. “Investigative journalists do really important work. You take a lead wherever you can get it as a prosecutor. Obviously, you do your own due diligence and make sure it’s all checked out, but investigative journalism really does move the needle with prosecutors.”
Julie K. Brown, an investigative reporter with the Miami Herald who previously worked for the Philadelphia Daily News, led the charge in uncovering the controversy in a three-part series documenting Epstein’s allegations and the “secret deal” he was given.
Some elected officials and advocates were quick to call for Acosta’s resignation for securing such a lenient deal.
Presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway said it was typical for Democrats to shift focus from Epstein to a member of Trump’s cabinet.
Trump, who previously distanced himself from the allegations, told reporters Tuesday that he had a “falling out” with Epstein and was “not a fan of his.”
The president also defended Acosta but said he would look into the plea deal.
“If you go back and look at everybody else’s decisions, whether it’s a U.S. attorney, or an assistant U.S. attorney or a judge, if you go back 12 or 15 years ago or 20 years ago and look at their past decisions, I would think you would probably find that they would wish they’d maybe did it a different way,” Trump told reporters, according to the Associated Press. While Trump said he would be looking “very closely” at the case, the president also said he feels “very badly” for the labor secretary.
Acosta said Tuesday that he was “pleased" that prosecutors are looking at the case based on new evidence.
“With the evidence available more than a decade ago, federal prosecutors insisted that Epstein go to jail, register as a sex offender and put the world on notice that he was a sexual predator,” he wrote on Twitter. “With the evidence available more than a decade ago, federal prosecutors insisted that Epstein go to jail, register as a sex offender and put the world on notice that he was a sexual predator."
Then, at a press conference Wednesday, the labor secretary defended his past actions, contending that he secured the best deal he could at the time.
“Facts are important, and facts are being overlooked,” Acosta said.
He asserted that the case was complicated “by the fact that the matter started as a state investigation.”
“The Palm Beach attorney’s office was ready to let him go, with no jail time,” Acosta said, defending Epstein’s light prison sentence that resulted from the deal. He said Epstein’s year in prison and registration as a sex offender was better than allowing him to walk.
“We believe we proceeded appropriately,” Acosta said at the news conference. “...Epstein’s actions absolutely deserve a stiffer sentence. ... He should be prosecuted in any state in which he committed a crime.”
Additionally, victims began to change their stories, Acosta said.
“Some victims actually exonerated Epstein,” he said. “...Today we know a lot more about how victims’ trauma affect their statements.”