- 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)
Jan. 6 Committee Prepares Criminal Charges Against Steve Bannon for Ignoring Subpoena
The move comes after former President Trump told several of his previous aides not to cooperate with the committee’s investigation into the insurrection.
Bannon Refuses to Comply With Subpoena
The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection announced Thursday that it is seeking to hold former White House advisor Steve Bannon in criminal contempt for refusing to comply with a subpoena.
The decision marks a significant escalation in the panel’s efforts to force officials under former President Donald Trump’s administration to comply with its probe amid Trump’s growing efforts to obstruct the inquiry.
In recent weeks, the former president has launched a number of attempts to block the panel from getting key documents, testimonies, and other evidence requested by the committee that he claims are protected by executive privilege.
Notably, some of those assertions have been shut down. On Friday, President Joe Biden rejected Trump’s effort to withhold documents relating to the insurrection.
Still, Trump has also directed former officials in his administration not to comply with subpoenas or cooperate with the committee.
That demand came after the panel issued subpoenas ordering depositions from Bannon and three other former officials: Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Scavino, and Pentagon Chief of Staff Kash Patel.
After Trump issued his demand, Bannon’s lawyer announced that he would not obey the subpoena until the panel reached an agreement with Trump or a court ruled on the executive privilege matter.
Many legal experts have questioned whether Bannon, who left the White House in 2017, can claim executive privilege for something that happened when he was not working for the executive.
Panel Intensifies Compliance Efforts
The Thursday decision from the committee is significant because it will likely set up a legal battle and test how much authority the committee can and will exercise in requiring compliance.
It also sets an important precedent for those who have been subpoenaed. While Bannon is the first former official to openly defy the committee, there have been reports that others plan to do the same.
The panel previously said Patel and Meadows were “engaging” with investigators, but on Thursday, several outlets reported that the two — who were supposed to appear before the body on Thursday and Friday respectively — are now expected to be given an extension or continuance.
Sources told reporters that Scavino, who was also asked to testify Friday, has had his deposition postponed because service of his subpoena was delayed.
As far as what happens next for Bannon, the committee will vote to adopt the contempt report next week. Once that is complete, the matter will go before the House for a full vote.
Assuming the Democratic-held House approves the contempt charge, it will then get referred to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia to bring the matter before a grand jury.
See what others are saying: (CNN) (The Washington Post) (Bloomberg)
Senate Votes To Extend Debt Ceiling Until December
The move adds another deadline to Dec. 3, which is also when the federal government is set to shut down unless Congress approves new spending.
Debt Ceiling Raised Temporarily
The Senate voted on Thursday to extend the debt ceiling until December, temporarily averting a fiscal catastrophe.
The move, which followed weeks of stalemate due to Republican objections, came after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) partially backed down from his blockade and offered a short-term proposal.
After much whipping of votes, 11 Republicans joined Democrats to break the legislative filibuster and move to final approval of the measure. The bill ultimately passed in a vote of 50-48 without any Republican support.
The legislation will now head to the House, where Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said members would be called back from their current recess for a vote on Tuesday.
The White House said President Joe Biden would sign the measure, but urged Congress to pass a longer extension.
“We cannot allow partisan politics to hold our economy hostage, and we can’t allow the routine process of paying our bills to turn into a confidence-shaking political showdown every two years or every two months,’’ White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.
Under the current bill, the nation’s borrowing limit will be increased by $480 billion, which the Treasury Department said will cover federal borrowing until around Dec. 3.
The agency had previously warned that it would run out of money by Oct. 18 if Congress failed to act. Such a move would have a chilling impact on the economy, forcing the U.S. to default on its debts and potentially plunging the country into a recession.
Major Hurdles Remain
While the legislation extending the ceiling will certainly offer temporary relief, it sets up another perilous deadline for the first Friday in December, when government funding is also set to expire if Congress does not approve another spending bill.
Regardless of the new deadline, many of the same hurdles lawmakers faced the first time around remain.
Democrats are still struggling to hammer out the final details of Biden’s $3.5 trillion spending agenda, which Republicans have strongly opposed.
Notably, Democratic leaders previously said they could pass the bill through budget reconciliation, which would allow them to approve the measure with 50 votes and no Republican support.
Such a move would require all 50 Senators, but intraparty disputes remain over objections brought by Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Az.), who have been stalling the process for months.
Although disagreements over reconciliation are ongoing among Democrats, McConnell has insisted the party use the obscure procedural process to raise the debt limit. Democrats, however, have balked at the idea, arguing that tying the debt ceiling to reconciliation would set a dangerous precedent.
Despite Republican efforts to connect the limit to Biden’s economic agenda, raising the ceiling is not the same as adopting new spending. Rather, the limit is increased to pay off spending that has already been authorized by previous sessions of Congress and past administrations.
In fact, much of the current debt stems from policies passed by Republicans during the Trump administration, including the 2017 tax overhaul.
As a result, while Democrats have signaled they may make concessions to Manchin and Sinema, they strongly believe that Republicans must join them to increase the debt ceiling to fund projects their party supported.
It is currently unclear when or how the ongoing stalemate will be resolved, or how either party will overcome their fervent objections.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NPR) (The Washington Post)
California Makes Universal Voting by Mail Permanent
California is now the eighth state to make universal mail-in ballots permanent after it temporarily adopted the policy for elections held amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
CA Approves Universal Voting by Mail
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a bill Monday requiring every registered voter in the state to be mailed a ballot at least 29 days before an election, whether they request it or not.
Assembly Bill 37 makes permanent a practice that was temporarily adopted for elections during the COVID-19 pandemic. The law, which officially takes effect in January, also extends the time mail ballots have to arrive at elections offices from three days to seven days after an election. Voters can still choose to cast their vote in person if they prefer.
Supporters of the policy have cheered the move, arguing that proactively sending ballots to registered voters increases turnout.
“Data shows that sending everyone a ballot in the mail provides voters access. And when voters get ballots in the mail, they vote,” the bill’s author, Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Palo Alto), said during a Senate committee hearing in July.
Meanwhile opponents — mostly Republicans — have long cast doubts about the safety of mail-in voting, despite a lack of evidence to support their claims that it leads to widespread voter fraud. That strategy, however, has also faced notable pushback from some that a lot of Republicans who say it can actually hurt GOP turnout.
Others May Follow
The new legislation probably isn’t too surprising for California, where over 50% of votes cast in general elections have been through mail ballots since 2012, according to The Sacramento Bee. Now, many believe California will be followed by similar legislation from Democrats across the country as more Republican leaders move forward with elections bills that significantly limit voting access.
Newsome signed 10 other measures Monday changing election and campaign procedures, including a bill that would require anyone advocating for or against a candidate to stand farther away from a polling place. Another bill increases penalties for candidates who use campaign funds for personal expenses while a third measure increases reporting requirements for limited liability corporations that engage in campaign activity.
“As states across our country continue to enact undemocratic voter suppression laws, California is increasing voter access, expanding voting options and bolstering elections integrity and transparency,” Newsom said in a statement.
“Last year we took unprecedented steps to ensure all voters had the opportunity to cast a ballot during the pandemic and today we are making those measures permanent after record-breaking participation in the 2020 presidential election.”
The news regarding California came just in time for National Voter Registration day today, giving Americans another reminder to make sure they’re registered in their states. For more information on how to register, visit Vote.gov or any of the other resources linked below.