Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, facing new scrutiny for his handling of a federal sex abuse investigation against wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein a decade ago, is leaving President Donald Trump’s cabinet.
Trump said Friday morning that Acosta is stepping down. Speaking to reporters with Acosta before departing the White House for events in Wisconsin and Ohio, Trump said that his labor secretary had done a "fantastic job" and that it was Acosta's decision to resign.
"This was him, not me," Trump said.
Acosta, who two days ago defended his decisions about the case to try to deflect calls for his resignation, said that he had called the president and said that the "right thing was to step aside" because he didn't want the Epstein case to be a distraction.
"I do not think it is right and fair for this administration's Labor Department to have Epstein as the focus, rather than the incredible economy," Acosta said.
He is to be replaced by the deputy labor secretary, Patrick Pizzella, on an acting basis. Pizzella has his own controversial past: work that he did with disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff in the late 1990s and early 2000s to hamper worker protections in the Northern Mariana Islands, CNBC reported.
Acosta’s departure -- which will take effect in a week -- follows new charges of sex trafficking and sex trafficking conspiracy against Epstein, brought by the Southern District of New York in Manhattan in an indictment unsealed on July 8. The money manager is accused of exploiting a vast network of girls, some as young as 14, for sex.
Democratic leaders including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and many 2020 presidential candidates had called for Acosta's resignation. Acosta had defended his handling of the earlier prosecution and blamed Florida authorities for the leniency with which Epstein was treated.
Pelosi, of California, said he should never have been appointed by Trump and confirmed by the Senate.
“Thank God he’s gone,” she said.
Epstein, 66, was investigated in the early 2000s for molesting young girls in South Florida, where he also has a home, but avoided federal prosecution. A 53-page federal indictment drafted by the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of Florida was shelved after Epstein reached a controversial plea agreement with federal prosecutors. Acosta was the U.S. attorney in the district.
Epstein, whose friends and acquaintances included Trump, former President Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew of Britain, pleaded guilty to state prostitution charges and served 13 months in a Palm Beach jail. He was allowed to leave six days a week to work at his office and to have his own private security detail. Had he been convicted of the charges in the shelved federal complaint, he could have faced up to life behind bars.
Acosta was actively involved in the negotiations, according to documents that were introduced into evidence in a lawsuit by two victims who said their rights were violated. That included an email between Acosta and one of Epstein's lawyers, former Whitewater special prosecutor Ken Starr, in which he agreed to hold off on sending out victim notification letters at Starr's request.
The deal also granted immunity to “any potential co-conspirators,” the Miami Herald reported in November, as part of a series on Epstein.
"I think this is absolutely fantastic news," Spencer Kuvin, an attorney for several of Epstein's victims, said Friday on MSNBC of Acosta's resignation. "His office had completely dropped the ball."
Acosta in a nearly hour-long press conference on July 10, told reporters that "in our heart we were trying to do the right thing for these victims." He said prosecutors avoided a more lenient arrangement that would have allowed Epstein to "walk free."
"We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail," Acosta said. "He needed to go to jail."
Acosta's account was challenged by Barry Krischer, who was the Palm Beach County attorney during the case. Krischer, a Democrat, said Acosta "should not be allowed to rewrite history."
Krischer said the federal indictment was "abandoned after secret negotiations between Mr. Epstein's lawyers and Mr. Acosta." He added: "If Mr. Acosta was truly concerned with the State's case and felt he had to rescue the matter, he would have moved forward with the 53-page indictment that his own office drafted."
The same day Acosta spoke a new accuser came forward to say Epstein had raped her in his New York mansion when she was 15. Jennifer Araoz, now 32, told "Today" that she did not go to police because she feared retribution from Epstein. She now has filed court papers in preparation for suing him.
A day after Epstein's new arrest, Acosta had tweeted, "The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific, and I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a 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. "Now that new evidence and additional testimony is available, the NY prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice."
Acosta downplayed his office's actions at his Senate confirmation hearing last year. "There was a time when keeping something confidential was less of an issue, but the public expectation today is that things be very public,” he testified.
A federal judge ruled in February that the prosecutors had violated federal law when they kept the plea agreement secret from victims. The Justice Department began a probe into Acosta’s actions, the results of which Democrats have demanded.