Editor’s Note: Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinions on CNN.
Until recently, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta was probably one of President Donald Trump’s least controversial Cabinet members. But now he is facing rising pressure over his handling of a sex offender case involving a well-connected billionaire.
On February 21, a federal judge ruled that Miami prosecutors, led by then-US Attorney Acosta, broke the law when they arranged a plea deal for billionaire Jeffrey Epstein in 2008 without conferring with his victims. Although Epstein was accused of trafficking children for sex, Acosta allowed him to negotiate an extremely lenient agreement that was kept secret from his victims – denying them the opportunity to affect the prosecutorial process. Now the victims might have a say: The judge gave the government 15 days to talk with the victims who sued and figure out what remedy should apply.
Thanks in part to investigative reporting by The Miami Herald, Acosta is now under scrutiny for his handling of Epstein’s case, and he could be summoned to testify before Congress. But with or without a congressional hearing, one thing is clear: Acosta must face the consequences of arranging such an improper agreement. He should step down as labor secretary.
You don’t have to be a legal expert to understand how unusual Epstein’s plea deal was, given the severity of the accusations against him – molesting and trafficking dozens of young women, some as young as 13. With federal authorities investigating him, Epstein could have faced spending the rest of his life in prison. That didn’t happen. Instead, Acosta and the prosecutors let Epstein plead guilty to two lesser prostitution-related charges, and this agreement was kept secret until 2015 when it was unsealed in a lawsuit.
At his 2017 confirmation hearing, Acosta was asked by Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia about the Epstein deal. “At the end of the day, based on the evidence, professionals within the 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,” Acosta said.
In theory, that may be true; the reality was far different. Epstein served only 13 months in the private wing of the Palm Beach County jail. He was able to come and go for up to 12 hours at a time, six days a week. He was allowed to hire his own private security detail. During his subsequent year of probation under house arrest, he took numerous trips on his private jet.
Epstein was no typical defendant. He counted Bill Clinton and Donald Trump among his friends. His legal team included high-powered lawyers such as Kenneth Starr, Roy Black and Alan Dershowitz. But those factors should not have warranted special treatment, especially for a case involving alleged serial abuse of minors. Epstein’s light sentence makes a mockery of the principle of equal justice for all.
Moreover, Acosta is on the verge of becoming a political liability for the administration. In addition to Judge Kenneth Marra finding that Acosta violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by keeping Epstein’s deal a secret from his victims, the Justice Department has opened an investigation into his handling of Epstein’s plea deal. The White House, too, is looking into Acosta’s role in the Epstein case. And on February 22, lawmakers sent a letter to the President calling on him to demand Acosta’s resignation over Epstein’s “despicable unjust plea deal.”
Acosta’s actions are worthy of bipartisan outrage and should offend every American father and mother. Acosta betrayed the vulnerable to benefit the powerful. His deal for Epstein shows a disregard for child welfare, victims’ rights and Justice Department procedures. Ironically, as secretary of labor, Acosta is responsible for monitoring human trafficking.
There is no joy in calling for the only Latino in Trump’s Cabinet to step down. Still, Acosta’s role in crafting a sweetheart deal for a sex offender means he does not deserve to be serving at the highest level of government.
True, Acosta’s handling of Epstein’s case predates his Department of Labor tenure. Yet as we’ve learned from sexual abuse scandals involving Hollywood actresses and Olympic gymnasts, the passage of time is no excuse for avoiding a reckoning. The fact that Epstein’s plea deal was made more than a decade ago does not mean that Acosta should not bear accountability for his actions. Epstein’s victims, who are now in their 20s and 30s, are still living with the consequences of that secret agreement. Acosta deserves to do so as well.