July 21, 2019
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US labor secretary resigns over Jeffrey Epstein controversy

Washington, Jul 12 (efe-epa).- Alex Acosta is stepping down as US labor secretary amid controversy over the plea bargain he negotiated with accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein in 2008 while serving as a federal prosecutor, President Donald Trump said Friday.

Trump made the announcement with Acosta at his side in front of reporters at the White House.

The president said the secretary telephoned him early Friday to say that he had decided to resign, emphasizing that the decision was entirely Acosta's.

"As I look forward, I do not think it is right and fair for this administration's labor department to have Epstein as the focus rather than the incredibly economy we have today," Acosta said. "I told (Trump) the right thing was to step aside."

The president described Acosta as a "great labor secretary, not a good one" and praised him for the "very good job" he did as head of the Labor Department.

The resignation came less than 48 hours after Acosta held an extended press conference to defend his handling of the Epstein case as US attorney in Miami.

Epstein, known for friendships with high-profile figures such as Trump, Bill Clinton and Britain's Prince Andrew, was arrested last Saturday when he arrived back in the United States aboard his private jet after a visit to France, on orders from the office of the US attorney for the Southern District of New York.

In a court appearance on Monday, the 66-year-old hedge fund manager pleaded not guilty to federal sex trafficking charges for alleged offenses committed between 2002 and 2005 at Epstein's mansion in Manhattan and his estate in Palm Beach, Florida.

Epstein was first accused of sexually abusing minors more than a decade ago, but negotiations between his lawyers and Acosta resulted in a confidential deal that saw the mogul plead guilty to state charges and serve 13 months in a county jail.

Throughout his sentence, the prisoner was allowed to spend 12 hours a day, six days a week at his office in Palm Beach on work release.

His accusers, who were kept in the dark about the agreement, reacted angrily when they learned the details of the arrangement, thanks mainly to investigative reporting by The Miami Herald.

"Epstein sexually exploited and abused dozens of underage girls by enticing them to engage in sex acts with him in exchange for money. Epstein allegedly worked with several employees and associates to ensure that he had a steady supply of minor victims to abuse, and paid several of those victims themselves to recruit other underage girls to engage in similar sex acts for money," according to the indictment unsealed Monday in New York.

"While the charged conduct is from a number of years ago, the victims - then children and now young women - are no less entitled to their day in court," US Attorney Geoffrey Berman said.

The indictment said that some victims were as young as 14 at the time of the acts and that a number of the girls told Epstein they were minors.

Once Epstein was in custody, police and FBI agents raided his Manhattan mansion where, according to prosecutors, they found "at least hundreds-and perhaps thousands-of sexually suggestive photographs of fully- or partially nude females," some who appeared to be underage.

Acosta had always defended the plea deal as appropriate given the circumstances due to the reluctance of "many victims" to testify, but the explanations he offered at this week's press conference provoked further criticism.

Earlier this year, a US district judge in Florida concluded that the 2008 agreement between Acosta and Epstein's attorney violated the law.

"Jeffrey Epstein entered into a non-prosecution agreement with the Southern District of Florida," Berman said Monday. "That agreement only binds, by its terms, only binds the Southern District of Florida. The Southern District of New York is not bound by that agreement and is not a signatory to that agreement."

Trump was quoted in a 2002 New York Magazine article about Epstein.

"I've known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy. He's a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it - Jeffrey enjoys his social life," the future president said.

Subsequently, however, the real estate magnate disclosed a falling out with Epstein and said he had banned him from the Trump-owned Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach.

A review of flight-logs from Epstein's private jet showed that former President Bill Clinton traveled on the aircraft on 26 separate occasions in the early 2000s.

Epstein could be sentenced to up to 45 years in prison if convicted on one count each of sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking.

Prosecutors have requested that Epstein, whose several homes include a residence on his private island in the Caribbean, be held without bail.

On Thursday, the defendant's lawyers asked the judge hearing the case to grant Epstein pre-trial release in exchange for posting bail of $77 million and surrendering his passport.

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