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Labor Secretary Acosta Defends Sweetheart Plea Deal for Epstein. Aired 3-3:30p ET
Aired July 10, 2019 - 15:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ALEXANDER ACOSTA, U.S. SECRETARY OF LABOR: And they had the opportunity to proceed civilly. That does not mean that the investigation had to cease nationwide.
And, as we see today, as we saw in New York, investigations could certainly and obviously have proceeded in other districts.
QUESTION: And the follow-up, how can you be trusted to enforce human trafficking laws as secretary of labor, given your history with this case?
ACOSTA: So, I have been -- I started one of the first human trafficking task forces at the Department of Justice.
I have been aggressive prosecuting human trafficking. We stood -- we stepped in, in this case, and we stopped a bad state plea. And so I understand from today's perspective that people scratch their heads and they say, why?
Here's the question to ask. How many other times have you seen a U.S. attorney's office intervene in a state matter and say, stop the state plea because it is insufficient?
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) with Reuters.
I want to ask you a question about the Office of Professional Responsibility. Earlier this year, it was disclosed that they're going -- they're doing a review into allow you and other prosecutors in your office handled this matter.
What is the status of that? What exactly are they looking at? Will you submit to an interview, even though you're no longer with the Justice Department, and, if they find any misconduct, will you resign?
ACOSTA: First, I don't know what the status of that is. I would refer that to the Office of Professional Responsibility. I don't speak for them.
I will clearly submit for an interview, even though I don't have to. I think what they do is important. The Office of Professional Responsibility will have access to the full record. They will have access to all the facts. They will have access to the FBI reports. They will have access to the victim interviews.
They can look at this matter in its totality. And so I think it is important that they proceed. I will gladly be part of it. And I think what they will find is that the office acted appropriately.
QUESTION: Hi, Secretary Acosta. It's Yamiche Alcindor with "PBS NewsHour."
As labor secretary, you have tried repeatedly to cut a program that deals with human trafficking in the Labor Department by up to 80 percent, going before Congress, advocating for that. Why should people trust you to focus on human trafficking and protect victims if you have done that?
And I would like a follow-up question.
ACOSTA: So, you're referring to grants that go to foreign countries for foreign country labor-related work as part of the budget every year.
Those grants have been removed, as have other grants for foreign countries. And let me just add, as part of the budget every year, those grants are put right back in by Congress.
This is what happens in Washington, and I fully suspect that those grants will remain in this year.
QUESTION: My follow-up question is, sources have told me that the president encouraged you to hold this press conference. Can you speak a little bit about what the president told you ahead of this press conference and whether you're here to give a message to the president?
Are you fighting for your job? Or are you trying to send a message to victims? And, if so, what is the message to victims, who say they don't trust you anymore?
ACOSTA: So, first, I'm not about to talk about conversations with the president, and I'm not here to send any signal to the president.
I think it's important. A lot of questions were raised. And I -- this has reached the point that I think it's important to have a public airing. I think it's important that these questions be asked and answered.
And 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. We have seen in the last few years cases brought against individuals that got away with things for well over a decade.
And, you know, it's important to realize that people were getting away with these. People were not going to jail at all. And we're aware of those high-profile cases. And we have seen, as victims come forward, how the justice system deals with them.
And so the message to victims is, come forward.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary...
ACOSTA: Let me take a few more.
QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Secretary, Richard Madan, CTV.
You just said victims need to come forward.
ACOSTA: I'm sorry. Richard...
QUESTION: Madan with CTV Television.
You just said a moment ago the victims should come forward. But you still haven't offered an apology to them. Why is that?
ACOSTA: So the victims should come forward because the justice system needs to hear from them.
And what the victims went through is horrific. What the victims continue to go through is horrific. I have seen these videos. I have seen the interviews -- I'm sorry -- I have seen the interviews on television of these victims and their stories.
And so it's hard. But I also think it's important that we understand that the men and women of my office, going back to 2006 and 2007 and 2008, have spent their career prosecuting these types of cases.
And in their heart, in our heart, we were trying to do the right thing for these victims.
And so this is horrific. This is awful. Each one of these cases is just devastating and saddening. But I also think it's important to realize that the prosecutors were trying to do the right thing.
QUESTION: Yes, (INAUDIBLE) from Daily Mail. How are you?
Are you aware of alleged obstruction of justice by Mr. Epstein? It seemed to be mentioned in a bail memo by New York prosecutors. And did he take efforts to intimidate prosecutors, and, if he did, or harass witnesses, hamper witnesses, if he did that, why would he get what's been viewed -- what's been called a sweetheart deal?
ACOSTA: I can't -- I can't comment on the New York case. That would not be appropriate.
QUESTION: I'm talking about in Florida. Did he obstruct justice...
ACOSTA: Sir, there is a pending New York case in New York. I can't comment.
QUESTION: I'm curious who at main Justice -- Neil McCabe, One America News.
Who at main Justice reviewed this case or your decision? And did you have any interaction with Robert Mueller at the time?
ACOSTA: So, I shared a letter that I wrote to one of Epstein's defense attorneys. And I shared that letter in part because it shows much of the timeline.
It shows how initially the meetings that took place were between the -- in July -- between the first assistant, the criminal chief, the Palm Beach office chief and the line attorney and two FBI agents with Epstein's attorneys.
You will notice that the initial meeting, as outlined in this letter, were all career attorneys, how they presented the terms, how Epstein's attorneys were dissatisfied and asked for a meeting with me, how I subsequently met with their attorneys, along with all the career officials, how, at that meeting, we then invited the chief of the Child Exploitation and Obscenity section from the Department of Justice to travel down, because one of the -- you know, one of the things we wanted to make sure of was that we had, going back to the earlier question about the ADA rule, that we had sufficient evidence to proceed ethically.
And then it details a little bit on how Epstein's counsels appealed the decisions to Washington. I would refer you to the record.
One of the really disturbing things about this case is, there's a record here. The documents that I shared today, we have shared previously with media. Yet I have seen no reference to any of these documents and the perspective of some of these prosecutors.
There's a record. All these documents are publicly available and could have been pulled up by anyone in this room. And so, you know, there is a record that will -- you know, I wasn't at main Justice. I do not have a full list of the individuals that reviewed this matter at main Justice.
I can tell you the individuals referenced in this letter. And I would refer you to the record, because I -- this was 12 years ago. I do not have a full list of the individuals that reviewed this at main Justice.
ACOSTA: Well, as the record makes clear, individuals from main Justice were involved fairly early on and were certainly aware of it.
And I think, if you look at the record, it will become clear that our decisions were appealed again and again to main Justice.
QUESTION: Adam (INAUDIBLE) from "The Financial Times."
So, the deal that you negotiated resulted in two things. One is that the case ended with Mr. Epstein pleading to state prostitution charges. And another thing that it did was that it immunized his co- conspirators.
So, two questions. Did you consider his victims in that case to be prostitutes? And why did you immunize his co-conspirators?
ACOSTA: So, the answer to were the victims prostitutes, no. Victims -- they were victims, end of story. They were victims.
The second part of that is, in -- the purpose in this case was to bring Epstein to jail, to put him behind bars. And so there were other individuals that may have been involved, that, in any type of conspiracy, there are individuals around someone.
The focus really is on the top player. And that's where our focus appropriately was.
Let me also say something, because a lot has been said about this 13- month. When we proceeded, the expectation the expectation was that it would be an 18-month sentence. And the expectation was that it would be served in jail.
And so this work release was complete B.S., and I have been on record as far back as 2011 saying that it was not what was bargained for and it was not what we expected.
But this was a state court plea. And because of it was a state court plea, the terms of confinement were under the jurisdiction of the state of Florida. And so the outrage over that 13-month, you know, getting to leave jail, is entirely appropriate.
When we entered into this, we -- I, at least, fully thought that he would be spending the time in jail. That's what we mean by someone going to jail. QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) If I can get a brief statement in Spanish, I
would really appreciate it.
ACOSTA: I'll tell you what. If you ask answer the -- if you want -- if you ask me a question in Spanish, I will answer in Spanish. Is that fair?
QUESTION: I was trying to get a brief statement (OFF-MIKE) so I can go over with what everyone already said.
ACOSTA: (SPEAKING SPANISH)
QUESTION: (SPEAKING SPANISH)
ACOSTA: (SPEAKING SPANISH)
QUESTION: (SPEAKING SPANISH)
ACOSTA: (SPEAKING SPANISH)
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary?
ACOSTA: Did you ask a question already?
QUESTION: I did.
Let me go to someone new.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) You said earlier that your message to victims was to come forward. What's your message specifically to those who did come forward and felt let down by you?
ACOSTA: They came -- look, the victims came forward. And there were several victims.
You know, I believe that, in one of the filings, the Department of Justice talked to several of the victims, and some of the victims just didn't want any public notoriety.
Other victims have provided interviews and said they felt let down, that they were let down. These are really hard cases. The prosecutors in my office and I were focused on putting him in jail.
I provided the information from the career attorney as to why there were concerns, if we went to trial, and it became clear that they were going to receive money if he was convicted, how that would impeach their credibility.
And, today, that would proceed very differently, because victim shaming is just not accepted. But the circumstances of trials and what juries would consider 12 years ago was different. And so these were the judgments that were made. I understand that individuals will look at these judgments and say,
well, maybe a different judgment should have been made. You know, you can always look at a play after the fact and say, should it have been the safe play or should you have gone for the big score, and ask, which is the right outcome?
But I provided these documents so that you could hear from the prosecutors themselves how these -- how this was being weighed.
QUESTION: Jesse Seidman, VICE NEWS.
Did "The Miami Herald" reach out to you last November? And if so, why didn't you set the record straight on the breakfast meeting then?
ACOSTA: So, media has reached out to me over the years about this. I think it's very important. The Department of Justice is the entity that is litigating all of these matters.
And, quite honestly, until recently, I haven't commented on this since 2011 because I think it's important for the United States to litigate cases through the Department of Justice.
And if former U.S. attorneys responded to media inquiries about pending cases -- and this is a pending case -- there was a live and there still is a live civil matter -- if former U.S. attorneys responded to media inquiries all the time, we would have havoc in our justice system.
You can't have a Department of Justice as a litigating entity with U.S. attorneys giving press statements. Now, your follow-up question may be, why am I talking today?
And the answer is, this has clearly reached the level where I thought it was important to have this kind of press conference to take questions and to provide these facts and these perspectives.
And I understand that individuals may say this was not enough. But this is the way it was viewed, not only by me, but by many back in 2008.
QUESTION: Secretary (OFF-MIKE) one more question.
QUESTION: Yes, Doug Christian from Talk Media News.
QUESTION: One thing -- yes.
You said that the victims were not prostitutes, but the agreement was -- he was jailed for prostitution charges, not for child -- for sex trafficking. Can you just say what the distinction was?
ACOSTA: The agreements -- the agreement was, this was a state -- here's why this is hard.
This was a state case. He was arraigned. He -- a state grand jury returned a prostitution charge against him, a solicitation charge, if I recall. That was a state grand jury. He was allowed to self- surrender by the state attorney's office as a result of that single charge that would have resulted in no jail time.
And, ultimately, what the agreement did was say, you have to go back and you have to plea to a more serious state charge that requires jail time, that requires registration, and, under this agreement, you will have a mechanism for restitution.
But the agreement itself -- you know, ultimately, the state of Florida and the state attorney's office in Florida is a separate sovereign. The U.S. attorney does not determine how those offices run themselves or what charges they bring.
I do not consider the victims prostitutes. I think that is insulting to them. These were victims. They were not just women victims. They were children victims.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary?
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, I'm Debra Saunders with "The Las Vegas Review-Journal."
Since Mr. Epstein left jail, he's been a public figure. He's been a man about town. He hasn't seemed particularly contrite about what he did. What have you thought when you have seen him?
ACOSTA: What I thought is, I keep reading newspaper articles about pending investigations here or there. You know, if someone does a Google search, they will see that there were rumors of investigations going on for the last 10 years.
And New York finally stood up and -- stood up and they took one of those investigations and they brought charges. And in all candor, I wish it would have happened. I'm glad to see that it's happening now.
He's a -- you know, he's a bad man. And he needs to be put away. And, you know, based on additional allegations that I saw this morning, there are multiple jurisdictions, whether federal or state, that he's going to have to answer to.
A few more questions.
QUESTION: Alex Daugherty with "Miami Herald."
I wanted to ask and follow up with your answer to the earlier question about the potential co-conspirators. Were you confident at the time that any potential additional co-conspirators didn't commit sexual abuses of underage girls, like Epstein did, even if it may not have been of the same scale, some of those victims have accused others of doing similar acts to them?
ACOSTA: So, let me see how I can address your question without running afoul of Department of Justice guidelines.
If my office had been aware of individuals who committed acts such as sexual abuse, you know, my office -- it would not have been my position that those individuals should have been part of that kind of immunity. It's not an immunity deal. Should not have been part of that paragraph.
And so I know that there are a lot of rumors about who those individuals may or may not be. I think those rumors are misconstruing the acts of the office with respect to that particular paragraph.
One more question.
QUESTION: Richard Lardner from the Associated Press.
Mr. Secretary were you ever made aware at any point in your handling of this case that Mr. Epstein was an intelligence asset of some sort?
ACOSTA: So, there has been reporting to that effect.
And let me say, there's been reporting to a lot of effects in this case, not just now, but over the years. And, again, I would -- you know, I would hesitate to take this reporting as fact.
This was a case that was brought by our office. It was brought based on the facts. And I look at that reporting and others. I can't address it directly because of our guidelines.
But I can tell you that a lot of reporting is just going down rabbit holes.
A few more questions. A few more questions. Have you asked a question yet?
QUESTION: I have.
How about then in front of you?
Yes? Sorry. I'm trying to do a one question per person.
ACOSTA: OK. QUESTION: Can I go ahead?
QUESTION: Hi, Katie Rogers at "The New York Times."
I'm just wondering what makes you so confident that the president is going to have you continue to serve. There have been several advisers of his who he stands up -- stands up for initially, but you're about at the level where he has backed away before. So, what makes you so confident?
ACOSTA: So, look, I am here to talk about this case. I'm doing my job. If at some point the president decides that I am not the best person to do this job, I respect that. That is his choice.
I serve at the pleasure of the president. I thought yesterday he was kind and he showed great support. But we have to remember, we are here because we are part of an administration that is creating jobs, that is creating growth, that is really transforming our economy and focusing it on, you know, the forgotten man and woman.
And if at some point he says, look, you're not the right person for this right now or you're standing in the way, I respect that.
Do you really have nothing else to say to these victims beyond, you should come forward? That places a lot of burden on children. What else do you have to say? You have avoided addressing these people directly. Why is that?
ACOSTA: So, to be clear, that is not all I said.
You know, I think, if I recall -- and I obviously don't have a transcript here -- but, you know, what I have said previously is, look, I have seen these interviews, and I can't -- I generally can't begin to fathom what these victims have been through.
I don't think that anyone that has not been in this situation can begin to fathom. The closest I can come is to think, what would I feel like if one of my girls was going through this?
And I would be -- you know, I'm not sure I can say the way I would feel on television. But even that is different than what the victims themselves went through. And so the point I'm trying to make is, everything that the victims have gone through in these cases is horrific, and their response is entirely justified.
At the same time, I think it's important to stand up for the prosecutors of my former office, and make clear that what they were trying to do was help these victims. They should not be portrayed as individuals that just didn't care, because they have spent a lifetime of bringing cases like this. They are individuals who really, really do care.
QUESTION: That's not an apology, though, right?
QUESTION: Hi. I'm Nikki Schwab, "New York Post."
How much of this do you think was Epstein getting special treatment because of his enormous wealth and also political connections?
ACOSTA: So, I have heard a lot about that.
And if you go through the record, you will see that, in July, he was presented with certain terms. And I laid this out in a letter, an open letter, that I wrote to address some of these questions in 2011. And he was presented with terms.
And the office throughout this entire negotiation -- and it took several months from July to, what, December -- through these five months of negotiations stuck to those terms. You go to jail, you register, and you provide restitution.
The original term was two years. The office ultimately agreed to 18 months, register. It had to be an offense -- it had to be an offense where there was registration, because the world needed to be on notice that he was a sexual predator.
And it had to be a situation where the victims could seek restitution, because it wasn't just enough for him to go to jail.
And let me also say, you know, restitution is also not enough. You can never put victims in the place they were before they were victimized. You can't unwind history, but restitution is important.
Thank you very much.
QUESTION: You mentioned his legal team, how powerful his lawyers were.
Did they put pressure on you? Did they put pressure on D.C.? Did someone at DOJ tell you or order you to cut a deal with Jeffrey Epstein?
ACOSTA: His -- his attorneys certainly filed several appeals with main Justice.
I will again restate, when the career attorneys met with him, they presented certain terms. And the office stayed true to those terms throughout. Those terms did not change. The agreement did not change. No level of appeal to main Justice changed the terms of these initial points in those agreements.
ACOSTA: One last -- right -- right there.
QUESTION: Hi. (OFF-MIKE)
I just had a question for you.
In the proposed remedies from Jane Doe 1 and 2, one of their requests is to -- can you just meet with you? You know, you're not apologizing today, but would you be willing to meet with them?
You know, that's a really -- that's a really good question. This is currently in litigation. And so I don't want to I don't want to interfere with that litigation.
But let me just say, I have monitored this litigation without -- I haven't monitored day to day. I have never pulled a full record, but I have watched it. And I have seen what these victims have gone through.
And whenever this litigation is concluded, I have always had an open- door policy, and I have always welcomed the opportunity to sit down. And I think it would be really healthy for prosecutors to sometimes circle back, and really hear about what happened, because we all have to learn.
You know, one of the questions that came up at my confirmation hearing was, what would you do differently? And I alluded to this. And I said, the world is much more transparent. We expect a lot more from government. We are a less trusting society. We can wonder whether that's right or wrong, but we are a less trusting society today, in part because our culture expects transparency.
And so to sit down and hear from victims how this impacted them, I think would be healthy for prosecutors generally. I can't commit in this particular case. It's in litigation.
But I think that would be healthy for prosecutors generally. Thank you very much.
BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: All right.
Alex Acosta, labor secretary, been up in the hot seat answering all kinds of questions for 50 -- just over 50 minutes.
Let's dive straight into analysis, starting with you guys.
Shimon Prokupecz, first is just our Justice reporter.
Let's go back a couple of chapters to the explanation he gave as far as what didn't happen down when he was a U.S. attorney in Florida some decade ago.
So, it sounded like he was saying, the state wanted to let him -- Jeffrey Epstein walk, it wasn't a slam-dunk case, roll of the dice to go to trial, so we did what we could.
SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: And we came in as the heroes, right?
PROKUPECZ: He was going to walk unless we came in and started threatening to bring charges.
You heard a lot about him talk about rolling the dice and lots of excuses here. You never hear him apologize. You never hear him have any kind of regrets. It's all of these excuses, blaming career prosecutors.
I mean, there's no other way. He never said, I made this decision, it was my decision. Career prosecutors made this decision. Some of those prosecutors are still working in that office. And that's what you kept hearing from him.
And the whole point here he keeps saying is, we wanted to get him in jail. That is what we want. We wanted him to serve time, and we wanted him to register.
In the end, this is was a -- what he's saying is, this was a very difficult case. We weren't going to roll the dice. Given -- you know, he's not going to say this, but you know this goes through the mind of prosecutors. If you're going to do the right thing, you're going to stand up to power, you're going to stand up to the wealthy, and you're going to stand up to the connected.
And what you see here is, that did not happen in this case. His high- powered attorneys definitely had a role in this. They were meeting with Epstein, with Acosta. They were meeting with Department of Justice attorneys. They were complaining about the way the case was being handled.
So, all of that, you know, in his mind, he's a political figure in all of this. This had to play a role in his head. And he just -- I mean, he said it. We weren't going to roll the dice. And they didn't. And they took the easy way out. They had a number of victims.
There was no reason...
BALDWIN: Thirty-six victims.
PROKUPECZ: There was no reason for them to rush this case.
BALDWIN: Time served, 11 months.
BALDWIN: And now he faces 45 years. PROKUPECZ: They had a team of FBI agents that could have kept working this case to build the evidence, to get more evidence.
To me, the rolling the dice is what really stood out.
BALDWIN: Back to you.
What did you think?
PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, this was a press conference that demonstrated colossal prosecutorial irresponsibility.
I mean, he's talking about rolling the dice. He didn't even pick up the dice. They didn't even start investigating this, as you have indicated.
And, by the way, court documents with respect to this very matter.