- Associated Press - Friday, March 1, 2019

WASHINGTON (AP) - Congressional Democrats are trying to increase pressure on Labor Secretary Alex Acosta over his handling of a secret plea deal with a wealthy financier accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls.

A group of House Democrats sent a letter to the attorney general on Friday asking the Justice Department to reopen the deal with Jeffrey Epstein to allow further investigation. They also want the department to make public the results of a department review into federal prosecutors’ management of the case, which happened when Acosta served as U.S. Attorney in Miami.

“It is at this critical juncture that the agency has an opportunity to foster greater transparency and accountability with the American public,” says the letter, which was led by Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Lois Frankel of Florida and Jackie Speier of California, and signed by other Democrats.

The fresh push from Democrats underscored their efforts to keep the heat on the official whom President Donald Trump has chosen to oversee labor issues. But so far the White House has not signaled great urgency in reviewing the case or in changing Acosta’s standing.

The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility is examining whether professional misconduct took place in the case. The department declined to comment on the letter.

Epstein, now 66, reached a non-prosecution deal in 2008 with Acosta’s former office to secretly end a federal sex abuse investigation involving at least 40 teenage girls that could have landed him behind bars for life. He instead pleaded guilty to state charges, spent 13 months in jail, paid settlements to victims and is a registered sex offender.

A federal judge has ruled that prosecutors in Florida violated the rights of victims by reaching the non-prosecution agreement with Epstein. In that decision, the judge stopped short of invalidating the non-prosecution agreement but asked prosecutors and victims’ lawyers to recommend how to move forward. The victims have called for the deal to be put aside and want prosecutors to charge Epstein federally, but it is unclear when or if that would happen.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said last week that the administration was “looking into the case,” but it has not provided any additional information.

Between his diplomatic venture to Vietnam, the border funding showdown with Congress and the Capitol Hill testimony of his former personal lawyer, it’s not clear this case is currently a priority for the president. Trump recently said he didn’t know much about the case but volunteered that Acosta has done “a great job” as labor secretary. On the Epstein case, Trump added, “That seems like a long time ago.”

Trump was friendly with Epstein in the past, telling New York Magazine in 2002: “I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy.” He added: “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.”

The White House did not answer questions about Trump’s relationship to Epstein.

Acosta has defended the deal as appropriate but has not commented since a recent series of articles in the Miami Herald about how the agreement came about. The Labor Department issued a statement recently saying the secretary welcomes the Justice Department probe.

Democrats - as well as a few Republicans - have pushed for more. A group of Democratic lawmakers have called on Trump to seek Acosta’s resignation and some have been in touch with the House oversight committee about the possibility of congressional hearings on the case.

“This is not a person who deserves the authority nor should be holding the trust of enforcing our labor laws,” said Wasserman Schultz.

Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia tweeted last week that Acosta “never should have been confirmed as Labor Secretary.” The loudest Republican voice raising concerns has been Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Oversight Subcommittee, who called on the Justice Department to look into Acosta’s role and to reopen the agreement.

But others have expressed support for Acosta. In a statement, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said of the case: “This was a prosecutorial judgment that was made by Secretary Acosta and was vetted by our committee. The Justice Department under the last three presidents - Trump, Obama, and Bush - have all defended his handling of the case.”

A senior Republican aide dismissed the calls for Acosta to step aside. During the confirmation process, Acosta privately stressed that he felt he had gotten the best deal he could, given the evidence at hand and the resources he was up against.

Acosta, who was confirmed by the Senate in a 60-38 vote in 2017, is the nation’s 27th labor secretary, leading a sprawling agency that enforces more than 180 federal laws covering about 10 million employers and 125 million workers. In addition to working as a federal prosecutor, he has been a civil rights chief at the Justice Department and a member of the National Labor Relations Board.


Curt Anderson contributed from Miami.

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