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How Alex Acosta explained his handling of controversial Epstein case

Labor Sec. Alex Acosta has publicly addressed his handling of a 2008 plea deal with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Then the top Florida federal prosecutor, Acosta has drawn criticism for Epstein’s lax sentence, especially in light of stunning new charges against Epstein. Former federal prosecutor Jessica Roth and Yamiche Alcindor talk to Judy Woodruff about questions Acosta did and didn't answer.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For nearly an hour today, the U.S. secretary of labor, Alex Acosta, answered questions about a plea deal he brokered as a federal prosecutor in Florida more than a decade ago.

    At the time, financier Jeffrey Epstein received a jail sentence that critics have called unusually lenient. Earlier this week, federal prosecutors in New York brought new charges of sex trafficking against him.

    Today, Acosta defended his handling of the 2008 case.

  • Alexander Acosta:

    We believe that we proceeded appropriately that, based on the evidence — and not just my opinion, but I have shared the affidavit — based on the evidence, there was value to getting a guilty plea and having him register.

    I understand what the victims say. And I'm not here to say that I can stand in their shoes or that I can address their concerns. I'm here to say we did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail. He needed to go to jail.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Here with us now to delve into Secretary Acosta's comments and other developments in the Jeffrey Epstein case are our own Yamiche Alcindor, who was at Secretary Acosta's news conference this afternoon, and Jessica Roth. She was previously a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, where Epstein's case is being tried. She is now at the Yeshiva University Cardozo School of Law.

    Hello to both of you.

    Yamiche, I'm going to turn to you first.

    You were in the room today when Secretary Acosta was answering those questions, as we said, for about an hour. Here is what he said when you asked him about his message to victims of Jeffrey Epstein.

  • Alexander Acosta:

    As to a message to the victims, the message is, you need to come forward. I heard this morning that another victim came forward and made horrendous, horrendous allegations, allegations that should never happen to any woman, much less a young girl.

    And, as victims come forward, these cases can be brought, and they can be brought by the federal government. They can be brought by state attorneys. And they will be brought.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so, Yamiche, what more, what did he add to what we just heard?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, Secretary Acosta really held this press conference because he wanted to offer a full-throated defense of his handling of this controversial 2008 plea agreement with Epstein.

    And what he said essentially was that victims need to have their responsibility to come forward. My question to him was, do you have anything to say to these victims? Do you have anything to say to the president, who I'm told encouraged you to hold this press conference?

    And Acosta said he wasn't trying to send a signal to the president.

    But my sources tell me the president wanted him to be out in front, talking to cameras today, talking to reporters, because he wanted to see how he would handle the backlash and the criticism that he's been getting all week.

    It's also important to note that Acosta used some of the same reasoning that the president used yesterday when he defended the labor secretary. He said today that this was a long time ago, and this case might have been handled differently in 2019. He also said that victims are viewed differently.

    But he didn't say, I regret what I did. He didn't say he would do anything differently. And he also didn't offer an apology. Instead, what we have is Acosta really coming forward and saying, I did the best that I could do. And, essentially, he did nod to the idea that the president wanted him to talk about this.

    But we're going to have to watch and see kind of how this moves forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, before I get to some of the particulars of what he said, we know a number of Democrats, anti-trafficking groups have been calling on him to resign from office.

    Yamiche, what did Acosta say today about his ability to do his job?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Secretary Acosta said he did the best that he could do and, as a result, he can be trusted to protect human trafficking victims.

    He also handed out some court documents where he was essentially making the case that the victims in 2008 were reluctant to come forward. He also made the case that some of the victims weren't told about the plea agreement because prosecutors were trying to get some sort of monetary compensation for them.

    But, essentially, he didn't really say, look, this was a sweetheart deal, I would do things differently.

    There are a lot of people that are very angry at this. Jeffrey Epstein was able to go in and out of prison, still go to work during this plea agreement, this time that he spent in prison.

    So, Secretary Acosta didn't really go forward and really answer the question of how people should view that specific plea agreement. So I think there's still some questions on whether or not Secretary Acosta will be answering those questions, because we know that this backlash is going to continue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jessica Roth, let me bring you into this.

    What did you make of his answers today that he spent an hour trying to or at least answering reporters' questions? What did you make of that? And did he answer your own questions about that plea agreement back in 2008?

  • Jessica Roth:

    So I thought he spent a lot of time at the press conference today shifting blame to other people.

    He seemed to be blaming the Florida state prosecutors for not having pursued serious enough charges in their own case, and essentially asserted that but for his office's involvement, Jeffrey Epstein wouldn't have pled guilty to a state felony and wouldn't have been subject to any prison time or to having to register as a sex offender.

    So, in a sense, he was shifting blame to the state prosecutors who initiated the case, saying they weren't tough enough in the first instance.

    He also talked about even the Florida state grand jury not having returned serious enough charges in the first instance, so shifting blame to the state prosecutor, to the grand jury, and also to the victims, in talking, as Yamiche said, about how some of them were not willing to come forward.

    And he talked about how they were inconsistent in their statements. So there was shifting of blame there. There was also some sharing of blame, in the sense of trying to make it clear that this was a group decision within his office, including the line prosecutors, for the ultimate deal that was reached.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you also had told us you had a question about the fact that he met — Acosta met privately, when this plea deal was being worked out, with Epstein's attorney.

    Did he have an adequate explanation for that today?

  • Jessica Roth:

    He did address that today. He really downplayed the significance of that meeting.

    He acknowledged that the meeting happened one-on-one at a hotel. He explained that the reason he had it one-on-one at the hotel was because, I believe Acosta said he was at a conference, and it was 7:00 a.m. And he said you don't office open, a U.S. attorney's office at 7:00 a.m. to have a breakfast meeting. You have it where you are.

    And he said that the meeting happened after the deal had already been negotiated, so we really shouldn't attach any significance to the fact that it happened one-on-one. And he said, we lived in a city where people have breakfast meetings essentially all the time.

    But I didn't find it satisfactory, because, as I understand the timeline here, the deal may have been negotiated, but it wasn't, if you will, a done deal at the time that he had the meeting.

    Epstein was continuing to appeal the decision with regard to that negotiations up the chain at the Department of Justice, and the plea in state court had not yet been entered, as I understand it.

    So I think it's a little bit disingenuous to say that there's no significance to that meeting having occurred because, essentially, everything was already done that was of significance at that time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, just quickly, Jessica Roth, if you could ask Secretary Acosta a question yourself, what is still outstanding in your mind about what happened?

  • Jessica Roth:

    Well, one thing he didn't address adequately, to my mind, is why the non-prosecution agree agreement granted immunity to unnamed co-conspirators of Epstein's? That is a very broad provision, and it wasn't adequately explained.

    He said in response to a question about that, well, we were focusing, if you will, on the most culpable person, who was Epstein, who was the top of the conspiracy.

    And there's no question that Epstein was the most culpable person, but by immunizing some named people, which occurred, but also anyone who was a potential co-conspirator, that really precluded the idea of cooperating other co-conspirators against Epstein, which would have been a critical thing to pursue a more serious case against Epstein.

    So he didn't explain that provision. And he didn't fully explain why they pursued such a lenient deal.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, just quickly, back to you, Yamiche, where does this go for Secretary Acosta? What is the White House saying now?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    This is really going to be an issue that Secretary Acosta is going to have to continue to deal with.

    House Democrats on the House Oversight Committee say that they want to hold hearings and possibly have Acosta testify. Now, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney has said that Acosta did an excellent job today. He told reporters that on the Hill.

    However, the White House has not said anything. President Trump has not said anything. And we have seen President Trump come to the defense of Cabinet secretaries and then, after seeing them not really defend themselves in the way that he thinks is adequate, then fire them.

    So I think Secretary Acosta still has — is in a place where the president is still evaluating him. So we will have to watch closely what the president says and what he does about Secretary Acosta. Right now, his job is secure, I'm told by sources, but that's just for right now.

    That could change in the next hour or in the next minute.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yamiche Alcindor and former prosecutor Jessica Roth, thank you.

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