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Labor Secretary Alex Acosta Faces Calls To Resign Over Jeffrey Epstein Plea Deal


Top Democrats are calling for Labor Secretary Alex Acosta to resign over the way he handled the prosecution of multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein more than a decade ago.


Back then, Acosta was U.S. attorney in Miami. His office accused Epstein of recruiting and having sex with dozens of underage girls. Then they struck a lenient and secret deal. Epstein would plead guilty to lesser state charges, register as a sex offender and spend 18 months in a county jail, which he could leave six days a week to go to work.

CORNISH: Epstein was arrested this week in New York on similar charges, bringing the spotlight back to Acosta's plea deal. President Trump is standing behind Acosta for now.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We'll have to look at it very carefully, but you're talking about a long time ago. And again, it was a decision made, I think, not by him but by a lot of people.

CORNISH: Let's unpack that 2008 decision now with former federal prosecutor Ken White. He says Acosta's office gave Epstein the deal of the millennium.

KEN WHITE: First, it's unusual for the federal government to give someone an agreement saying, we won't prosecute you since you're pleading to these state claims. That's not run-of-the-mill. What's also quite unusual is they did that even knowing that the state punishment would be quite lenient given the type of conduct that's described - basically trafficking in underage girls. And finally, what is completely unprecedented and that I've never seen is this very broad agreement that they would not prosecute any of Epstein's co-conspirators. In other words, there were people out there who helped Epstein procure underage girls. And the government was agreeing it would not go after them.

CORNISH: Acosta has defended his actions in the past, right? He says that Epstein had this star defense team that was very aggressive. He called it a, quote, "a year-long assault on the prosecution and the prosecutors," which he claims included investigating them and their families in hopes of finding something that might be the basis for disqualification. That's how he talked about this case, I think, back in 2011. You were a federal prosecutor. Are those typical defense tactics?

WHITE: They're unusual, but they're not unknown, particularly with defendants with a lot of money. They will find anything they can to use that money and power to grind you down, particularly if they don't have a particularly good defense. And so that may include attacking you. But generally it's very unusual to see a federal prosecutor or former federal prosecutor using that as an excuse of why someone got a historically unlikely deal.

CORNISH: The president says in his quote we heard earlier it was a decision he thought maybe not made by Acosta but by a lot of people. Again, from your position as a former federal prosecutor, is that a good response?

WHITE: Well, it's probably true because something this high-profile and potentially incendiary you would think would normally go up past the U.S. attorney, Mr. Acosta, up to someone in the Justice Department and that other people would be consulted. But that's a double-edged sword because it might take some of the responsibility off of Alex Acosta, but it really suggests that higher up people in the Justice Department knew about this very unusual and, frankly, somewhat questionable deal and signed off on it.

CORNISH: Now, as we mentioned, Epstein was arrested earlier this week and charged by the U.S. attorney's office in the Southern District of New York. Help us understand; help us see the differences between this case and the case that was prosecuted by Acosta.

WHITE: Well, as far as we can tell so far from the indictment, the main difference is that New York is charging it, and Florida didn't. So there never was a case by Acosta because he agreed not to bring one. But it appears to be based on the same time period that Acosta was looking at in Florida and the same type of conduct. The main difference is New York talks about things happening at Epstein's palatial New York house, and that gives them the jurisdiction to do it - that and the movement to and from Florida to New York. So this seems like a variation on the same case that Florida could have brought but didn't.

CORNISH: Ken White is a former federal prosecutor. Thank you for speaking with us.

WHITE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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