- Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta announced his resignation amid criticism over a controversial plea deal he brokered in 2008 that significantly reduced the sentence of financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was accused of committing sex crimes.
- The move was announced in a joint press conference Friday, with President Donald Trump applauding Acosta as “a fantastic secretary of labor.”
- The renewed criticism for Acosta came after federal prosecutors in New York filed charges against Epstein on June 6, and accused him of abusing dozens of underage girls.
- Deputy Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella will take over as acting secretary, though human rights groups have expressed concern over his previous efforts to lobby against worker protections in the Northern Mariana Islands.
Acosta Steps Down
Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta resigned Friday after renewed criticism of a 2008 plea deal he struck in a high profile sex crimes case against prominent financier Jeffrey Epstein.
Acosta, who was the U.S. Attorney for Miami at the time of the Epstein case, came under fire this week after federal prosecutors in New York charged Epstein with sex trafficking and sex trafficking conspiracy for his alleged abuse of dozens of underage girls.
Epstein had previously been charged in a parallel case in Miami and was facing a life sentence.
However, Acosta, in his capacity as the lead prosecutor, negotiated a secret last-minute plea deal with Epstein’s lawyers that allowed him to plead guilty to lesser offenses and receive a sentence of 13 months in jail.
The new charges against Epstein reignited backlash over Acosta’s handling of the previous case, prompting calls for Acosta to step down.
“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 speaking alongside President Donald Trump in front of the White House Friday morning.
“I called the president this morning, I told him the right thing was to step aside,” he continued. “Cabinet positions are temporary trusts. It would be selfish to stay in this position and continue talking about a case that’s 12 years old, rather than the amazing economy we have right now.”
Trump for his part applauded Acosta’s work as labor secretary.
“He’s done a fantastic job. He’s a friend of everybody in the administration,” Trump said. “He made a deal that people were happy with, and then 12 years later they’re not happy with it. You’ll have to figure all of that out. But the fact is, he has been a fantastic secretary of labor.”
Acosta’s resignation comes after he held a nearly hour-long news conference on Wednesday, where he defended his decision to reach the plea deal and argued it was the best his office could do under the circumstances.
Acosta argued that Epstein that would not have faced jail-time under charges that state authorities were going bring, but the prosecutor’s office intervened and pressed for a tougher sentence.
“We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail,” he said. “He needed to go to jail.”
When asked by reporters if he would make the same deal today, Acosta answered, “We now have 12 years of knowledge and hindsight and we live in a very different world. Today’s world treats victims very, very differently. Today’s world does not allow some of the victim-shaming that could have taken place at trial.”
Reporters asked Acosta multiple times if he would apologize to the victims, Acosta refused.
Reporters also pressed Acosta about a February decision by a federal judge who said the plea deal Acosta made violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act because he did not inform Epstein’s victims that he had made the agreement until after it was approved by a judge.
Acosta again defended that decision, arguing that his office did not inform the victims because he was not sure if Epstein would accept the agreement, which included a clause that would allow the victims to seek restitution.
Acosta said that if Epstein had gone to trial rather than taking the deal, his defense lawyers could have undermined victim testimonies by arguing that they were only doing it for the money.
Barry Krischer, who served as Palm Beach state attorney at the time of the Epstein case, rebuked Acosta’s conference Wednesday and accused him of trying to “rewrite history” by putting the blame on state authorities.
“I can emphatically state that Mr. Acosta’s recollection of this matter is completely wrong,” Krischer said, “No matter how my office resolved the state charges, the U.S. attorney’s office always had the ability to file its own federal charges.”
“If Mr. Acosta was truly concerned with the state’s case and felt he had to rescue the matter, he would have moved forward with the 53-page indictment that his own office drafted,” he continued.
Congressional leaders have called for further investigation into Acosta’s role in the plea deal. Before Acosta announced his resignation, House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings requested that he testify before the committee about the agreement.
Cummings, along with other House Democrats, also sent a letter to the Justice Department to request a briefing about their internal investigations.
“There are significant concerns with Secretary Acosta’s actions in approving an extremely favorable deal for an alleged sexual predator while concealing the deal from the victims of Mr. Epstein’s crimes, which a judge found violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.
It is unclear if they will move forward with the hearing.
Controversy Around Deputy Labor Secretary
Acosta will step officially step down in seven days, and Deputy Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella will take over as acting secretary.
….Alex was a great Secretary of Labor and his service is truly appreciated. He will be replaced on an acting basis by Pat Pizzella, the current Deputy Secretary.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 12, 2019
However, Pizzella’s ascension is already provoking controversy. Civil rights groups have expressed concern about his work with Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff in the late 1990s and early 2000s to lobby against protections for workers in the Northern Mariana Islands.
In 2017, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights wrote a letter to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, urging senators to oppose Pizzella’s nomination as deputy secretary of labor over the matter.
“Mr. Pizzella worked closely with Jack Abramoff to lobby for policies on the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands that essentially allowed for unchecked slave labor to be performed with the imprimatur of the ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ label on goods and clothing,” the letter said.
In 2006, Abramoff was sentenced to six years in prison for fraud-related charges.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NPR) (The Associated Press)
Biden Mistakenly Calls Out For Dead Lawmaker at White House Event
The remarks prompted concerns about the mental state of the president, who previously mourned the congresswoman’s death in an official White House statement.
Video of President Joe Biden publicly asking if a congresswoman who died last month was present at a White House event went viral Wednesday, giving rise to renewed questions about the leader’s mental acuity.
The remarks were made at the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health, which Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-In.) had helped convene and organize before her sudden death in a car accident.
The president thanked the group of bipartisan lawmakers who helped make the event happen, listing them off one by one, and appearing to look around in search of Rep. Walorski when he reached her name.
“Jackie, are you here? Where’s Jackie?” he called. “I think she wasn’t going to be here to help make this a reality.”
The incident flummoxed many, especially because Biden had even acknowledged her work on the conference in an official White House statement following her death last month.
“Jill and I are shocked and saddened by the death of Congresswoman Jackie Walorski of Indiana along with two members of her staff in a car accident today in Indiana,” the statement read.
“I appreciated her partnership as we plan for a historic White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health this fall that will be marked by her deep care for the needs of rural America.”
The Age Maximum Question
Numerous social media users and news outlets presented the mishap as evidence that Biden, who is 79, does not have the mental capacity to serve as president. Others, meanwhile, raised the possibility of imposing an age maximum for the presidency.
Most of the comments against the president came from the right, which has regularly questioned his mental stability. However, the idea of an age limit goes beyond Biden and touches on concerns about America’s most important leaders being too old.
While Biden is the oldest president in history, former President Donald Trump — who is 76 and has also had his mental state continually questioned — would have likewise held that title if he had won re-election in 2020.
These concerns extend outside the presidency as well: the current session of Congress is the oldest on average of any Congress in recent history, and the median ages are fairly similar among Republicans and Democrats when separated by chambers.
There is also a higher percentage of federal lawmakers who are older than the median age. Nearly 1 out of every 4 members are over the age of 70.
What’s more, some of the people in the highest leadership positions are among the oldest members. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.), is the oldest-ever House Speaker at 82, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — the president pro tempore of the Senate and third person in line for the presidency — is the same age, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is 80.
As a result, it is unsurprising that a recent Insider/Morning Consult poll found that 3 in 4 Americans support an age max for members of Congress, and more than 40% say they view the ages of political leaders as a “major” problem.
Those who support the regulations argue that age limits are standard practice in many industries, including for airplane pilots and the military, and thus should be imposed on those who have incredible amounts of power over the country.
However, setting age boundaries on Congress and the President would almost certainly necessitate changes to the Constitution, and because such a move would require federal lawmakers to curtail their own power, there is little political will.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Business Insider) (NBC News)
Churches Protected Loophole in Abuse Reporting for 20 years, Report Finds
In some cases, Clergy members failed to report abuse among their congregation, but state laws protected them from that responsibility.
A Nationwide Campaign to Hide Abuse
More than 130 bills seeking to create or amend child sexual abuse reporting laws have been neutered or killed due to religious opposition over the past two decades, according to a review by the Associated Press.
Many states have laws requiring professionals such as physicians, teachers, and psychotherapists to report any information pertaining to alleged child sexual abuse to authorities. In 33 states, however, clergy are exempt from those requirements if they deem the information privileged.
All of the reform bills reviewed either targeted this loophole and failed or amended the mandatory reporting statute without touching the loophole.
“The Roman Catholic Church has used its well-funded lobbying infrastructure and deep influence among lawmakers in some states to protect the privilege,” the AP stated. “Influential members of the Mormon church and Jehovah’s witnesses have also worked in statehouses and courts to preserve it in areas where their membership is high.”
“This loophole has resulted in an unknown number of predators being allowed to continue abusing children for years despite having confessed the behavior to religious officials,” the report continued.
“They believe they’re on a divine mission that justifies keeping the name and the reputation of their institution pristine,” David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, told the outlet. “So the leadership has a strong disincentive to involve the authorities, police or child protection people.”
Abuses Go Unreported
Last month, another AP investigation discovered that a Mormon bishop acting under the direction of church leaders in Arizona failed to report a church member who had confessed to sexually abusing his five-year-old daughter.
Merrill Nelson, a church lawyer and Republican lawmaker in Utah, reportedly advised the bishop against making the report because of Arizona’s clergy loophole, effectively allowing the father to allegedly rape and abuse three of his children for years.
Democratic State Sen. Victoria Steele proposed three bills in response to the case to close the loophole but told the AP that key Mormon legislators thwarted her efforts.
In Montana, a woman who was abused by a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses won a $35 million jury verdict against the church because it failed to report her abuse, but in 2020 the state supreme court reversed the judgment, citing the state’s reporting exemption for clergy.
In 2013, a former Idaho police officer turned himself in for abusing children after having told 15 members of the Mormon church, but prosecutors declined to charge the institution for not reporting him because it was protected under the clergy loophole.
The Mormon church said in a written statement to the AP that a member who confesses child sex abuse “has come seeking an opportunity to reconcile with God and to seek forgiveness for their actions. … That confession is considered sacred, and in most states, is regarded as a protected religious conversation owned by the confessor.”
See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (Deseret) (Standard Examiner)
Texas AG Ken Paxton Allegedly Flees Official Serving Subpoenas in Truck
Following the news, a judge granted the attorney general’s request to quash the subpoenas.
Paxton on the Run
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton fled his own home in a truck Monday morning to evade an official trying to serve him a subpoena, according to an affidavit filed in federal court.
Last month, several nonprofits filed a lawsuit seeking to block Texas from charging individuals under the state’s abortion ban in cases that happened out of state or prior to Roe v. Wade being overturned.
Two subpoenas were issued summoning Paxton to a Tuesday court hearing, one for his professional title and the other addressed to him personally.
Early on Monday Ernesto Martin Herrera, a process server, knocked on the front door of Paxton’s home in McKinney and was greeted by Texas state senator Angela Paxton, who is the Attorney General’s wife.
According to the affidavit, Herrera identified himself and informed her that he was delivering court documents to Mr. Paxton. She responded that her husband was on the phone and in a hurry to leave, so Herrera returned to his vehicle and waited for Ken to emerge.
Nearly an hour later, the affidavit states, a black Chevrolet Tahoe pulled into the driveway, and 20 minutes after that, the attorney general stepped out.
“I walked up the driveway approaching Mr. Paxton and called him by his name,” Herrera wrote in the affidavit. “As soon as he saw me and heard me call his name out, he turned around and RAN back inside the house through the same door in the garage.”
Shortly afterward, Angela exited the house and climbed into a truck in the driveway, leaving a rear driver-side door open.
“A few minutes later I saw Mr. Paxton RAN from the door inside the garage towards the rear door behind the driver side,” Herrera wrote. “I approached the truck, and loudly called him by his name and stated that I had court documents for him.”
“Mr. Paxton ignored me and kept heading for the truck,” he continued.
The affidavit adds that Herrera placed the documents on the ground by the vehicle and stated that he was serving a subpoena, but the Paxtons drove away.
Process Server or Lingering Stranger?
Following the publication of the affidavit in The Texas Tribune, Ken attacked the news outlet on Twitter and claimed to fear for his safety.
“This is a ridiculous waste of time and the media should be ashamed of themselves,” he wrote. “All across the country, conservatives have faced threats to their safety – many threats that received scant coverage or condemnation from the mainstream media.”
“It’s clear that the media wants to drum up another controversy involving my work as Attorney General, so they’re attacking me for having the audacity to avoid a stranger lingering outside my home and showing concern about the safety and well-being of my family,” he continued.
On Monday, the attorney general filed two requests: a motion to quash the subpoena and another to seal the certificates of service, which included the affidavit.
His lawyers argued that Herrera “loitered at the Attorney General’s home for over an hour, repeatedly shouted at him, and accosted” him and his wife.
U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman granted both requests on Tuesday.
In a statement, the attorney general said that Herrera is “lucky this situation did not escalate further or necessitate force.”