'Acosta must go': Democrats urge labor secretary to quit over Epstein plea deal

Ed Pilkington in New York
Photograph: Alan Diaz/AP

Alex Acosta, the US labor secretary, is facing renewed calls for his resignation over the lenient 2008 plea deal he cut with Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire financier who on Monday was charged with operating a sex trafficking ring involving girls as young as 14.

Acosta has come under a blizzard of calls from senior Democrats to step down or face fresh congressional scrutiny over the unusual deal he struck with Epstein when he was Miami’s top federal prosecutor 11 years ago. Epstein, 66, pleaded not guilty on Monday in a New York court to one count of sex trafficking conspiracy and a second of sex trafficking underage females.

The unsealed indictment accused Epstein of operating a “network enabling him to sexually exploit and abuse dozens of underage girls”. Epstein was alleged to have employed previous victims to recruit new targets of his crimes.

Related: Jeffrey Epstein: sex abuse allegations against billionaire socialite began in 2005

“I am calling on Secretary Acosta to resign,” Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader of the senate, said in a speech on the senate floor on Tuesday. “It is now impossible for anyone to have confidence in Secretary Acosta’s ability to lead the Department of Labor.”

“If he refuses to resign, President Trump should fire him,” Schumer added.

Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful Democrat in Congress, said Donald Trump had known Acosta’s role in the deal when he nominated him as labor secretary.

She tweeted: “Secretary Acosta must step down. As US attorney, he engaged in an unconscionable agreement w/ Jeffrey Epstein kept secret from courageous, young victims preventing them from seeking justice. This was known by Potus when he appointed him to the cabinet.”

The Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is one of the lawmakers leading the push for Acosta to quit. In an interview with the Guardian she renewed her call for his resignation, accusing him of having allowed Epstein to evade all accountability for his sex crimes.

Wasserman Schultz, who earlier this year joined fellow Democratic lawmakers in pressing for an official government investigation into Acosta’s role in the handling of the Epstein case, pointed out that, as labor secretary, Acosta is responsible for child labor laws and human trafficking.

She said: “A big part of his job is protecting workers and children from exploitation, yet he has demonstrated that he has utter disregard for victims and instead his priority is to protect sexual predators.”

Courtroom artist’s sketch of defendant Jeffrey Epstein, center, during his arraignment in New York federal court on Monday Photograph: Elizabeth Williams/AP

The congresswoman told the Guardian that if Acosta survived the current storm, pressure was already building within the congressional oversight committee to call Acosta in for questioning. She said: “There is strong interest among my colleagues to pursue this, it is absolutely time for us to take the next steps on holding Acosta accountable.”

Tim Kaine, the Virginia senator who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate in the 2016 presidential election, said bluntly on Twitter: “Acosta must go. He handed a sweetheart deal to a serial sexual predator.”

Kaine grilled the then federal prosecutor during his Senate confirmation hearing in March 2017. After Acosta was confirmed by 52 Republicans and eight Democrats, Kaine said one of the main reasons he voted against confirmation was the nominee’s record on the Epstein case.

Acosta must go. He handed a sweetheart deal to a serial sexual predator

Tim Kaine

As the federal prosecutor leading the case in 2008, Acosta oversaw a plea deal in which Epstein was granted a highly unusual non-prosecution agreement that shielded him from all federal criminal charges relating to his more than 30 incidents of potential abuse of young girls.

Under the deal, the FBI investigation that had already culminated in a 53-page draft indictment was shut down in favor of Epstein pleading guilty to two lesser state charges that controversially labelled his victims as prostitutes.

Immunity was also granted to Epstein’s “potential co-conspirators”, though it did not identify individuals. Epstein ended up serving just 13 months in jail with the ability to leave the prison every day to attend his luxury business premises.

How Acosta, 50, emerges from the furor is likely to depend heavily on the view taken by Trump and his inner circle of aides. A former White House adviser told Politico that “the next 72 hours are critical”.

In February, Trump lauded his cabinet minister as a “fantastic labor secretary”. But so far the president has been ominously silent since Epstein was arrested on Saturday.

Trump’s position is complicated by the fact that he is reportedly among a number of Epstein’s rich and powerful friends. Others are said to include Prince Andrew and Bill Clinton.

On Monday, a spokesperson for Clinton said: “President Clinton knows nothing about the terrible crimes Jeffrey Epstein pleaded guilty to in Florida some years ago, or those with which he has been recently charged in New York.”

The renewed focus on Epstein, and in turn on Acosta, was triggered in part by an in-depth investigation by the Miami Herald last November. The newspaper identified 80 women sexually abused or molested by the billionaire over the five years to 2006.

Sigrid McCawley speaking outside Manhattan Federal Court on Monday Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Most of Epstein’s survivors are now in their late 20s and 30s. One of the most contentious aspects of the bargain struck by Acosta was that it was conducted in secret: none of the women were informed of the deal and allowed to express their opinion about it.

Under federal law, such plea deals have to be presented to victims in advance to ensure that they have input. In a withering ruling in February, a federal judge, Kenneth Marra, found that federal prosecutors led by Acosta had broken the law by hiding the agreement.

Related: Jeffrey Epstein: inside the decade of scandal entangling Prince Andrew

Marra concluded that a federal prosecution should have been conducted. “Epstein worked in concert with others to obtain minors not only for his own sexual gratification, but also for the sexual gratification of others,’’ the judge wrote.

None of the women abused by Epstein have commented on Acosta’s position in Trump’s cabinet in the wake of Monday’s indictments. But the statements of two women were read out on the steps of the courthouse by their attorney, Sigrid McCawley of Boies Schiller Flexner, in which they clearly implied that justice had not been served in 2008.

“It is time for Jeffrey Epstein and those who participated and enabled his sex crimes to be brought to true justice,” said Virginia Giuffre. Fellow survivor Sarah Ransome said: “The news of my abuser’s arrest today is a step in the right direction to finally hold Epstein accountable for his crimes – it restores my faith that money and power cannot triumph over justice.”