Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen (L), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (3rd L), Labor Secretary Alex Acosta (C), and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, listen as Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie speaks during a Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, on November 11, 2018 in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Al Drago/Getty Images)
Epstein case puts Labor secretary's past under scrutiny (2018)
03:07 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The White House is “looking into” a federal judge’s ruling that the Justice Department violated the rights of sex crime victims while Labor Secretary Alex Acosta was a US attorney in Florida in 2008, press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Friday.

Sanders called the case “very complicated” and defended prosecutors for making the best deal possible at the time.

“My understanding is it’s a very complicated case,” Sanders told reporters. “Something we’re certainly looking into but that they made the best possible decision and deal they could have gotten at that time but again, that’s something we’re looking into and we’ll keep you posted as we learn more.”

When asked whether President Donald Trump had lost confidence in his labor secretary, Sanders said she was “not aware of any changes in that front,” and stressed the White House would be looking into the matter.

On Thursday, a federal judge in Florida ruled that the Department of Justice broke the law by failing to confer with victims of Jeffrey Epstein, a well-connected Palm Beach billionaire and alleged serial sex abuser of underage girls, about the 2008 plea deal that garnered him only 13 months in prison and no federal trial.

In November, the Miami Herald reported that when Acosta was a US attorney in Florida, he gave Epstein the “deal of a lifetime.” In a sweeping review of the politically connected billionaire’s case, the Herald explained how Acosta had made an agreement with Epstein to avoid major repercussions for the hedge fund manager, even though a federal investigation had identified 36 underage victims.

The report said Acosta had brokered a deal with one of Epstein’s attorneys where he pleaded to two state prostitution charges, ultimately serving only 13 months and avoiding a federal trial. He also registered as a sex offender and paid restitution to the victims identified by the FBI.

Acosta has denied any wrongdoing and defended his handling of the Epstein case during his confirmation hearing.

“At the end of the day, based on the evidence, professionals within a prosecutor’s office decide that a plea – that guarantees that someone goes to jail, that guarantees that someone register generally and that guarantees other outcomes – is a good thing,” he said last year.

Judge Kenneth Mara issued the ruling Thursday as part of a years-long lawsuit brought by victims of Epstein identified only as Jane Does. However, the ruling does not address what remedy, if any, the plaintiffs are entitled to going forward nor the legality of the plea deal itself.

The Department of Labor cited the Justice Department’s long-standing defense of Acosta’s actions in a statement Thursday.

“For more than a decade, the actions of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida in this case have been defended by the Department of Justice in litigation across three administrations and several attorneys general,” a Labor spokesperson wrote in a statement. “The office’s decisions were approved by departmental leadership and followed departmental procedures.”

Acosta told CNN earlier this month that he “welcomes” the Office of Professional Responsibility’s probe into his handling of Epstein’s plea agreement.

“I welcome OPR’s review of this,” Acosta said, noting that it’s not the first time the decision has been examined. “I will cooperate fully,” he added.

CNN’s Ross Levitt, Elizabeth Hartfield and Caroline Kelly contributed to this report.