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Labor Secretary Speaks Amid Calls for His Resignation Over Epstein Plea Agreement Decade Ago. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired July 10, 2019 - 14:30   ET


[14:30:00] BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: We have kept our eye on the screen. Live pictures from the Labor Department. We're waiting for the start of this news conference with Secretary Alex Acosta. The president urging him to speak out and defend himself over the plea deal involving Jeffrey Epstein when he was a U.S. attorney down in Florida more than a decade ago.



Let me start by reiterating that I'm pleased that the New York prosecution has gone forward. They've brought these charges based on new evidence against Jeffrey Epstein, who is now a registered sex offender, and this is a very, very good thing. His acts are despicable, and the New York prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring Epstein to justice.

In 2008, a major newspaper described the Epstein prosecution like this: A Florida grand jury, that is, a grand jury convened by the district attorney of Palm Beach County, had charged Epstein with a lesser offense. At that time, the Epstein legal team was elated. He would have avoided prison altogether.

[14:35:00] But then the United States Attorney's Office in Miami became involved. Epstein got an ultimatum: Plead guilty to a charge that would require jail time and registration, or face federal charges. And that was the week, more than 10 years ago, that Epstein went to jail.

ACOSTA: Times have changed, and coverage of this case has certainly changed since that article. Facts are important and facts are being overlooked.

This matter started as a state matter. It was prosecuted initially by the state of Florida and not by the US Attorney's Office. In 2006, a grand jury, convened by the State Attorney - the District Attorney of Palm Beach County, reviewed the evidence and recommended a single charge, and that charge would have resulted in no jail time at all, no registration as a sexual offender and no restitution to the victim.

Further, the State Attorney's Office allowed Epstein to self-surrender and arraigned him the following morning. Simply put, the Palm Beach State Attorney's Office was ready to let Epstein walk free, no jail time, nothing. The prosecutors in my former office found this to be completely unacceptable and they became involved, our office became involved. Our prosecutors, as this 2008 article recounts, presented the ultimatum - plead guilty to more serious charges, charges that require jail time, registration and restitution, or re-roll the dice and bring a federal indictment.

Without the work of our prosecutors, Epstein would have gotten away with just that state charge. Now many today question the terms of that ultimatum, what's called the non-prosecution agreement. A good prosecutor will tell you that these cases are complex, especially when they involve children, and even more so in 2006.

I've shared with those in this room today and will make available publicly an affidavit filed by the career prosecutor in a civil matter related to the Epstein case. She talks about the challenges faced, she talks about the victims being scared and traumatized, refusing to testify and how some victims actually exonerated Epstein.

Most had significant concerns about their identities being revealed. The acts that they had faced were horrible and they didn't want people to know about them. And she goes on to write that quote "after the fact, people alleged that Epstein would have been easily convicted."

As the prosecutor who handled the investigation, she says in this affidavit, these contentions overlook the facts that existed at the time. Her description of these facts are corroborated by the FBI case agent whose affidavit I've also shared today.

Thousands of prosecutors around the nation this week are weighing guilty pleas versus trials. These cases, as I said, are hard. They require a prosecutor to ask whether a plea that guarantees jail time and guarantees registration, to ask whether that plea versus going to trial, how do you weight those two if going to trial is viewed as a roll of the dice?

The goal here was straight forward, put Epstein behind bars, ensured he registered as a sexual offender, provide victims with the means to seek restitution and protect the public by putting them on notice that a sexual predator was in their midst.

ACOSTA: This case, people have said, was unusual. And it was. It was complicated by the fact that this matter started as a state investigation. A state grand jury brought that single completely unacceptable charge. A state official allowed Epstein to self- surrender. And so it is unusual, because unusual for a federal prosecutor to intervene in a state matter such as this.

[14:40:00] We've seen cases recently -- different set of facts. Different. I don't want anyone to say I'm comparing these cases, but we've seen other cases where state prosecutors let folks go with no sentence. And people shake their heads.

In this case, the federal office intervened before the plea was taken and said, "Stop." Because if that plea is taken at the state level, you're going to face serious federal issues. Today, we know a lot more about how victims' trauma impacts their

testimony. And this, too, is important. Our juries are more accepting of contradictory statements, understanding that trauma-impacted memories work differently. And today, our judges do not allow victim- shaming by defense attorneys.

I have viewed the victim interviews. They're hard to watch. Because I know that my former colleagues, the men and women of my office, wanted to help them. I wanted to help them. That is why we intervened. And that's what the prosecutors of my office did. They insisted that he go to jail and put the world on notice that he was and is a sexual predator.

Epstein's actions absolutely deserve a stiffer sentence. For years, there have been rumors of investigations in other jurisdictions. And he should be prosecuted in any state in which he committed a crime.

If there are other states in which he committed crimes, if there are other states that can bring state charges, they should consider those as well.

And so I absolutely welcome this New York prosecution. It is the absolutely right thing to do. And I'm happy to take questions.


Eric (ph)? Eric (inaudible)?

QUESTION: How would you describe your relationship with the president, the news cycle here with Epstein, as changing that?

ACOSTA: My relationship with the president's outstanding. He has, I think very publicly, made clear that -- that I've got his support. He spoke yesterday in the Oval Office -- he and I have spoken.

Let me add, I keep reading about -- articles about my relationship with me and Mr. Mulvaney. And he called me this morning to say, if asked, that our relationship is excellent too and that any articles to the contrary are, in his words, "B.S."

And -- and so it's -- I'm here. I'm defending this case. That's my job.

Tom? Tom?


QUESTION: Tom Llamas (ph), ABC News.

Secretary, a lot of people are watching this news conference including several young women who say they were teenagers when Jeffrey Epstein sexually assaulted them. They say they went to you, looking for help. And they didn't hear back from you until it was too late. Do you owe them an apology?

ACOSTA: So you're raising the issue of victim notification, and in the documents that I've circulated, I've addressed the issue of victim notification, as well.

The career prosecutor in this case had a difficult decision to make, and she didn't make it alone. She made it in consultation with the FBI, and she made it in consultation with the office. The agreement that had been negotiated had an unusual provision. Even though this was a state case, the victims would have the opportunity to receive restitution. Epstein would be required to pay for them to hire a lawyer to bring a case against him, a case in which he would have to plead no contest and provide them with restitution. And the concern -- and the -- these are the words of the career prosecutor -- that, quote, "she did not want to share with the victims that the office was attempting to secure for them the ability to obtain monetary compensation because she is aware that if she disclosed that and the negotiations fell through, Epstein's counsel would use this to question the victim's credibility."

And her concerns were not hypothetical. One of Epstein's attorneys had already asked one of the victims, quote, "Now, tell me about when the federal prosecutors told you about getting money."

[14:45:00] And so when the agreement was signed -- shortly after the agreement was signed, Epstein's counsels indicated that Epstein may not comply with the agreement, and the agreement was appealed at various levels within the Justice Department. And she details in this affidavit, an affidavit that's also corroborated by the FBI case agent, how she and he and the office was concerned that Epstein might not comply, and we would have to go to trial. And we had to weigh the issue of how much to disclose against the issue of, if we have to go to trial, we want to win. We want to put Epstein away. And talking about this would allow him to make the argument at trial that their testimony was compromised.

And so when she was finally -- when it was finally clear that Epstein would comply with the agreement, she talks about how she made efforts to notify the victims; how that was a Friday afternoon at 4:15, and that she learned that the state had scheduled the plea for 8:30 the following Monday, and she talks about how over the weekend she made every effort to notify the victims at that time.



QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Earlier, you described the approach you (inaudible) negotiating this deal as -- as openly as you -- as her -- Mr. Epstein (inaudible). And I wanted to draw your attention to (inaudible) prosecutors (inaudible) 3-4.3, which says a prosecutor should seek to file criminal charges only if the prosecutor reasonably believe (inaudible) charges are supported by probable cause, that the -- the admissible evidence will be sufficient to support conviction beyond a reasonable doubt, and that the decisions charged is in the interest of justice. Did you believe, sir, that the evidence against Epstein wouldn't have been sufficient to secure conviction beyond a reasonable doubt for the federal offenses (inaudible) in the non-prosecution agreement? And if so, why was it not in the interest of justice to charge him with these crimes? ACOSTA: So again, I would refer you to the documents I've provided. There is a big gulf between sufficient evidence to go to trial and sufficient evidence to be confident in the outcome of that trial. And so -- so -- if -- if I could, and I'll -- I'll give you a follow up in a minute, but if I could -- and so when this case -- and -- and I provided a letter that outlined some of the timeline of this.

In July of 2007, the career staff from my office met and they said these are the four points that you will have to do in state court, and if not we will proceed federally. They were very serious that they would proceed federally. That does not mean that they were confident in the final outcome.

And one of the tough questions in these cases, what is the value of a secured guilty plea with registration versus rolling the dice? And I know that in 2019, looking back on 2008, things may look different, but this was the judgment of prosecutors with dozens of years of experience.

If you look through that letter, you'll see this was not a single person making those decisions. You wanted a follow up?

QUESTION: (Inaudible) respectfully sir, you described what would happen if (inaudible) roll the dice with charges and -- and I understand that you're saying now that it's -- it's never -- it's never a -- a slam dunk, but it -- it seems -- it seems that -- it seems like you're -- you're making this out to be a case in which you held the possibility of a federal indictment over the head of Mr. Epstein to get him to plead to a lesser crime, and that in and of itself is -- is against the ABA Office.

ACOSTA: I -- I -- I do not think that the office violated the ABA standards by negotiating strongly and forcefully. Sir?

QUESTION: So standing here today, are you basically saying that you feel that you did everything you could? You got the best deal you could get and you have no regrets?

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

[14:50:00] Look, no regrets is a very hard question. At my confirmation hearing, I was asked a similar question, and one of the -- one of the issues I raised is we expect a lot more transparency today. As you watch these victim interviews, it's very obvious that the victims feel that this was not a sufficient outcome.

These victims were traumatized, we can't begin to understand what they want through, and they look at this and they say but why? And so you always look back and you say what if? What I can say is at the time -- and I've provided a timeline, I've provided information about the individuals involved -- this was the view of the office.

There is a value to a sure guilty plea because letting him walk, letting what the State Attorney was ready to do, go forward, would have been absolutely awful. Ben? Ben?

QUESTION: Yes, Ben Penn from Bloomberg Law.

You know, in light of the attention this week on your handling of this back in 2008, victims of sex trafficking, I wanted to ask about your role today as a secretary of labor. You have oversight through the Wage and Hour Division, certifying visas for victims of human trafficking, including sex trafficking.

And just last week, your Wage and Hour Division issued a new policy that would essentially allow the agency -- it's being criticized by a lot of people I talked to, for allowing the agency to completely remove itself or to virtually remove itself from continuing to certify these visas by referring them to other agencies.

How can you defend -- what was the purpose of that new (ph) policy?


ACOSTA: So -- so that is -- if you read the policy, that is not what it does. Our Wage and Hour Administrator, after she was confirmed, came in and she reviewed the policies. And she put in a place a requirement that a criminal prosecutor be consulted any time one of these issues is brought to the division's attention.

And that seems very reasonable. Don't we want criminal prosecutors to be consulted whenever someone says they are a victim of trafficking?

And that prosecutor will be consulted. And even if that prosecutor says, "This is not a case that we are going forward with," the division will still consider whether to issue that visa, on the facts. So that is a mischaracterization of her decision and her policy.



QUESTION: Could you go into a bit more detail about where and how you exactly negotiated this deal? Did you meet with Epstein's attorney alone at a Marriott hotel?

ACOSTA: So, you know, I've read this. And one of the things I find interesting is how -- how facts become facts because they're in a newspaper, as opposed to the record.

I pulled up -- I found out the details of that meeting because I scratched my own head about it. And I've provided you a timeline in a letter, of the negotiations, that make it very clear that this was negotiated by career prosecutors.

The -- I'm going to answer your question. The meeting that was alleged was a breakfast meeting that took place after the agreement was negotiated, not before. The agreement was signed in September.

After the agreement was negotiated, one of Epstein's attorneys asked for a meeting, asked for a hearing. I was giving a speech, I was staying at a hotel. I agreed to have a brief meeting, I believe at 7:00 a.m., rather than open the office. I spoke with that attorney.

And then I referred that attorney to the career prosecutors. Nothing changed in that agreement. They continued to litigate the matter, they continued to peel (ph) the matter to Washington, and nothing changed.

With one exception. There was an addendum that made clear that Epstein had to pay for any attorney that a victim -- that represented a victim in the cases against Epstein.

And so yes, I met with opposing counsel. It was a breakfast meeting because I was staying at the hotel. It was after -- after, not before. And not part of the negotiations. But it was after the agreement had been negotiated. And that can be confirmed simply by looking at the date on the agreement and the date on the meeting.


QUESTION: ... was a good idea to do that?

ACOSTA: So number one, the agreement had already been locked in place. So the agreement wasn't going to change. Before that agreement, you know, I was very careful to not negotiate this. Our career attorneys negotiated the agreement.


Secondly, I'd point out, we live in a city where people have breakfast meetings all the time. You don't open an office at 7:00 in the morning just to have a meeting. You have it over breakfast.


ACOSTA: Ian (ph)?

QUESTION: Secretary Acosta, it's not standard for a non-prosecution agreement to include a ...

ACOSTA: Let me -- let -- let -- let me do this ...


... I had -- I had called -- he -- I'll come back to you -- I'll come back to you ...

QUESTION: ... don't the young girls ...

ACOSTA: I -- I -- I wanted to give Ian (ph) an opportunity, I'll come back to you in a minute.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir. You've mentioned several times that you and the prosecutors in your office weren't sure that you could secure a win in this case, but the very purpose of the -- of the CVRA is to give the victims an opportunity to weigh in.

And a federal judge ruled that you broke federal law by not doing so. Do you think that your thinking would have been different had you followed the law and consulted the victims?

ACOSTA: So first, let me -- let me point out we followed department policy. Department policy at the time made very clear -- and this is in a written statement that was subsequently issued by what is called the Office of Legal Counsel, which is the chief policymaking -- the chief legal arm of the Department of Justice, that these situations with non-prosecution agreements are not covered by the CVRA at the time because the CVRA, according to department policy, does not attach until the case is actually brought.

Now I understand that the judge had a different view and I understand that the judge's view was that department policy did not comply with the law. And that's the way our system works, our system works in that a judge can say what the department policy is is not consistent with the law.

Now, let me also point out since then, a few years ago, Congress amended the CVRA and Congress amended it explicitly to say that non- prosecution agreements would be in fact covered, and that is a good thing. As I said at my confirmation hearing, you know, we expect a lot more transparency.

If we had had more transparency, perhaps this case would have gone differently. I've laid out the reasons why there were concerns about providing all the details to the victims before Epstein pled. But the Department of Justice has been very clear throughout multiple presidential administrations, throughout multiple Attorneys General that the department's position is that there was no violation of the law.

STAFF: One more?


ACOSTA: Yes, I've ...

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, would you make this ...

ACOSTA: I -- I'm sorry, you -- your name and -- and who you're with?

QUESTION: I'm Kaitlan Collins for CNN.


QUESTION: Would you make this same agreement today?

ACOSTA: So these questions are always very difficult because we now have 12 years of knowledge and hindsight and we live in a very different world. Today's world treats victims very, very differently. Today's world does not allow some of the victim shaming that could have taken place at trial 12 years ago.

Today's world understands that when interviewing victims, when eliciting testimony, that testimony can be sometimes contradictory, that memories are difficult. And so I don't think we can say, you know, take a case that is this old and fully know how it'd play out today.

QUESTION: But these victims say you failed them.

ACOSTA: I -- I understand what the victims say and I'm not here to try 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.

QUESTION: But he was out of jail before ...


ACOSTA: He needed -- he needed...

QUESTION: ... found out about this agreement.

ACOSTA: He needed to go to jail, and that was -- that was the focus.


John (inaudible). John? John?


ACOSTA: Sir. Yes.

QUESTION: Hi. Peter Alexander from NBC.


QUESTION: So to be clear, dozens of girls were allegedly molested. Why didn't you just keep investigating? And then a follow-up.

ACOSTA: So the victims of which we were aware were part of this, and -- and under the agreement in the Southern District of Florida, the investigation ceased, and they had the opportunity to proceed civilly. That does not mean that the investigation had to cease nationwide, and as we see today.