Alexander Acosta came to Washington with a dark cloud hanging over his head. With the recent indictment of billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein on sex-trafficking charges, that cloud is now so black, Acosta really can’t continue as secretary of labor.
Back in 2008, when Acosta was US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, he played a key role in cutting a sweetheart deal for Epstein. In essence, it allowed Epstein, a sexual predator who targeted vulnerable teenage girls, to avoid federal prosecution. Last November, the Miami Herald, in some remarkable investigative reporting, laid out the damning details of Acosta’s personal involvement in brokering the deal. But the general outline of Acosta’s abandonment of multiple victims — in favor of the predator who preyed on them — was known long before that.
President Trump nominated him anyway as labor secretary in 2017. During Senate confirmation hearings, Acosta brushed off questions about the Epstein deal. Unperturbed, the Senate voted to send Acosta off to join Trump’s band of ethically challenged Cabinet members without a single dissenting vote from Republicans (one GOP senator did not vote, and eight Democrats backed Acosta).
The new indictment of Epstein makes very clear why Acosta was unfit from the start for a job that includes oversight of anti-human-trafficking efforts. The indictment, brought by the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, charges that Epstein sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls at his homes in Manhattan and Palm Beach. According to the indictment, from at least 2002 to 2005, Epstein “enticed and recruited” and “caused to be enticed and recruited” minor girls “to engage in sex acts with him, after which he would give the victims hundreds of dollars in cash.”
The details are so sordid that Trump is now backing away from Epstein. In 2002, he called him a “terrific guy” who was said to “like beautiful women as much as I do and many of them are on the younger side.” Now Trump is saying he hasn’t spoken to Epstein in 15 years and “wasn’t a fan.” With contempt for the true victims of Epstein’s criminal perversion, Trump also said he feels “badly” for Acosta.
It isn’t sympathy that Acosta needs — it’s accountability. What he did mocks the basic principles a prosecutor should represent: justice, decency, and equal treatment under the law. As reported by the Miami Herald, Acosta signed on to a deal that allowed Epstein to plead guilty to just two state counts of soliciting prostitution, including one involving a minor. With that, Epstein avoided federal prosecution of charges that could have resulted in a life sentence. Immunity was also granted to four coconspirators. Last February, a federal judge ruled that another outrageous provision of the deal — that it be kept secret from Epstein’s victims — violated their rights. In exchange for his guilty plea, Epstein served 13 months in jail.
As one of Epstein’s victims told the newspaper, “As soon as that deal was signed, they silenced my voice and the voices of all of Jeffrey Epstein’s other victims. This case is about justice, not just for us, but for other victims who aren’t Olympic stars or Hollywood stars.” As another victim said, “He went after girls who he thought no one would listen to, and he was right.”
Under fire, Acosta held a press conference Wednesday afternoon defending his decisions, saying he wanted to take the sure thing of putting Epstein in jail rather than rolling the dice on a high-stakes trial. Given repeated opportunities, he refused to apologize to victims who have criticized his actions.
The poor judgment Acosta showed in the Epstein case would be troubling for any cabinet officer. But for a labor secretary, it raises additional questions about his commitment to the department’s mission. Among other responsibilities, the Labor Department is in charge of issuing visas to victims of sex trafficking — a process critics say has slowed during Acosta’s tenure. He also oversees the International Labor Affairs Bureau, which tackles foreign sex and labor trafficking — and whose budget he has proposed cutting. His record in the Epstein case, combined with his handling of the bureau, “showed me . . . that Secretary Acosta has a pattern of not recognizing the priority of these issues,” said Representative Katherine Clark of Melrose recently.
Justice is finally catching up with Epstein. It’s time for accountability to catch up with Acosta.