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Labor Secretary Alex Acosta Resigns Over Epstein Plea Deal

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  • 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.”

Previous Statements

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.

Acosta Rebuked

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.

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)

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Key Witnesses Testify in First Public Impeachment Hearings

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  • William Taylor, a top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a State Department official, became the first witnesses to speak in public hearings regarding the impeachment inquiry.
  • Both have testified privately, with Taylor largely supporting the existence of quid pro quo saying, “Security assistance money would not come until the President (of Ukraine) committed to pursue the investigation.”
  • The two repeated much of what they had said behind closed doors but added new details and painted clearer pictures. Kent also denied that there was any factual basis in the allegations against Joe Biden and the theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.
  • A public hearing raises the stakes of impeachment more, giving the public more opportunity to weigh in on if they think the process is worthwhile or not. 

Who is Testifying?

The first public hearings in the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry took off on Wednesday with two witnesses speaking before the House Intelligence Committee.

William Taylor, a top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a State Department official, previously testified behind closed doors. Both spoke of President Donald Trump’s apparent efforts to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch a series of investigations: One into Burisma, a Ukranian company Joe Biden’s son Hunter was on the board of, and another into alleged interference by Ukraine into the 2016 election.

Taylor made comments supporting the existence of quid pro quo. Democrats believe that a rough transcript of a phone call between Zelensky and Trump shows that Trump was withholding aid from Ukraine on the condition that these investigations begin. 

“That was my clear understanding,” Taylor said in his first closed-door testimony. “Security assistance money would not come until the President (of Ukraine) committed to pursue the investigation.”

While Kent did not speak about aid as much at the time, he did accuse Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, of leading attacks against both himself and former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. He also spoke about Trump’s desire to have Zelensky announce investigations.

“POTUS wanted nothing less than President Zelensky to go to microphone and say investigations, Biden, and Clinton,” he said behind closed doors. 

What Happened at the Hearing?

Wednesday’s hearing was led by House Intelligence Committee and its Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA). He and the top Republican on the committee, Devin Nunes (R-CA) both were allotted 45 minutes of questioning while other members got five. 

As expected, much of what was said on Wednesday had been said previously. Key quotes, however, did rise to the surface of the event. In his opening remarks, Schiff acknowledged the circumstances were it could be proven that Trump did withhold official acts from Ukraine on the condition of the investigations.  

“If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?” he asked. 

Nunes, on the other hand, called the impeachment inquiry a “carefully orchestrated media campaign.”

As far as witnesses go, Taylor mentioned an overheard phone call between Trump and EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland pertaining to the investigations. 

“The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone, asking Ambassador Sondland about ‘the investigations.’ Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward,” Taylor said. 

He claimed Sondland said Trump cares more about the investigation into Biden than he does about Ukraine. 

“Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine,” he continued. “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden.” 

Kent called the investigations “politically motivated”.

“In mid-August, it became clear to me that Giuliani’s efforts to gin up politically motivated investigations were now infecting U.S. engagement with Ukraine,” he said.

“I don’t believe the U.S. should ask other countries to engage in selective politically associated investigations or prosecutions against opponents of those in power because such selective actions undermine the rule of law, regardless of the country,” Kent added. 

Kent also denied that there was any factual basis in the allegations regarding both Joe Biden and the theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.

In another clip that went viral from the hearing, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) accuses Schiff of knowing the whistleblower’s identity. Schiff quickly turned this idea down. 

“You are the only member who knows who that individual is,” Jordan claims. “Your staff is the only staff of any member of Congress that’s had a chance to talk with that individual. We would like that opportunity. When might that happen in this proceeding?”

“First, as the gentleman knows, that’s a false statement,” Schiff responds. “I do not know the identity of the whistleblower and I am determined to make sure that identity is protected.” 

What’s at Stake and What’s Next?

The stakes for this hearing are higher than those of the private ones as they are the first the public is allowed to watch. They will likely have more eyes on them, allowing the public to further decide if they think Trump abused his power, or if the impeachment inquiry is a waste of Congress’ time. 

Trump’s Twitter feed has been relatively quiet during the hearing, with the president mainly retweeting clips and commentary from others. Wednesday morning, before they began he tweeted “NEVER TRUMPERS!” and “READ THE TRANSCRIPT!”

In a video shared by the White House, he called the impeachment inquiry “the single greatest scam in the history of American politics.”

He also tweeted a campaign video as the hearings were taking place.

On the other side of the situation, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi applauded Taylor and Kent for speaking out.

These hearings will be followed by remarks by Yovanovitch on Friday. More witnesses are also expected to be called to testify. Republicans also want to subpoena the whistleblower to testify, however, reports say a motion to do so was tabled after the hearing.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (Fox News) (Politico)

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Key Takeaways From Impeachment Testimony of Top U.S. Diplomat to Ukraine

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  • Testimony from William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine, was released by the House on Wednesday.
  • In it, Taylor said it was his “clear understanding” that the Trump administration would not give Ukraine the nearly $400 of military aid already approved by Congress unless the country investigated Trump’s political rival, Joe Biden.
  • Taylor also detailed the role of Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, in crafting U.S. foreign policy in Ukraine in a way that was beneficial to Trump.
  • Many elements of Taylor’s testimony were corroborated by other testimonies from key witnesses also released publicly this week.

Taylor Testimony Released

The House Intelligence Committee publicly released the full transcript Wednesday of the testimony given by William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine.

The career diplomat’s testimony joins the growing list of now-public transcripts from hearings with key witnesses in the ongoing impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. 

The House also announced on Wednesday that it will begin public hearings next week. Taylor is expected to testify in the new wave of hearings, so the transcript of his closed-door testimony is likely to inform what he tells lawmakers next week.

Here are some key takeaways from the more than 300-page transcript of Taylor’s testimony.

Taylor Says “Clear Understanding” of Quid Pro Quo

Many of the most important excerpts from Taylor’s testimony centered around two key questions at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.

The first question is: Did the Trump administration ask Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce that he would investigate Trump’s political opponent Joe Biden in exchange for a meeting with Trump at the White House?

And the second question is: Did the Trump administration withhold nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine in order to push Zelensky to investigate Biden?

Taylor addressed both of these questions in his opening statement, which was released a few weeks before the full transcript.

In the statement, Taylor said that U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland had told a top Zelensky aide “that the security assistance money would not come until President Zelenskyy committed to pursue” the investigation into Biden.

 “This was the first time I had heard that the security assistance — not just the White House meeting — was conditioned on the investigations,” Taylor said.

Arguably the most significant line from Taylor’s testimony was in response to a line of questions from Rep. Adam Schiff (D-NY), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee.

Pointing to Taylor’s statement that the White House meeting was “conditioned on the investigations,” Schiff asked Taylor if he was explicitly saying that Ukraine would not get the meeting or the military aid if they did not announce the investigations.

“That was my clear understanding, security assistance money would not come until the President committed to pursue the investigation,” Taylor responded.

Taylor’s Military Aid Testimony Was Consistent With Others

Notably, Taylor’s testimony about military aid being used for leverage was also supported by several other testimonies released this week.

Taylor’s statement about Sondland and the fact that he was the one who told Zelensky’s aide that the military assistance would be conditioned on the investigation was also confirmed in a testimony by Tim Morrison.

Morrison, a former White House national security adviser, told lawmakers that he was present in the room when Sondland made that statement to Zelensky’s aide.

Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert at the National Security Council, also backed up the claim in his testimony.

“Sondland emphasized the importance that Ukraine deliver the investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and Burisma,” Vindman said, referring to the Ukranian energy company Joe Biden’s son Hunter served on. “I stated to Amb. Sondland that his statements were inappropriate.”

Sondland had initially contradicted these accounts in his testimony, which was held before the others mentioned above.

But he later changed his testimony in a supplemental statement to the House, where he said Taylor and Morrison’s testimonies “refreshed my recollection about certain conversations.”

He went on to say that he now recalls a conversation on Sept. 1, 2019 with the same Zelensky aide the others referenced, and writing that during that conversation, “I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”

Giuliani Had a Huge Role

Another interesting comparison that can be drawn from Taylor and Sondland’s testimonies is the role of Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.

In his testimony, Sondland said that Trump had basically delegated Giuliani to lead the United States’ foreign policy in Ukraine and directed diplomats and others in the administration to talk to him.

“We were also disappointed by the President’s direction that we involve Mr. Giuliani,” he said. “Our view was that the men and women of the State Department, not the President’s personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine.” 

“However, based on the President’s direction we were faced with a choice,” he added, continuing to say that they chose to follow Trump’s directions and work with Giuliani.

While Sondland seemed clear that Giuliani was acting on Trump’s directions, Taylor was less sure.

In his opening statement, Taylor said that while it was clear to him the meeting between Trump and Zelensky was conditioned on the investigations: “It was also clear that this condition was driven by the irregular policy channel I had come to understand was guided by Mr. Giuliani.”

When asked by Rep. Schiff, he later elaborated: “The irregular channel seemed to focus on specific issues, specific cases, rather than the regular channel’s focus on institution building. So the irregular channel, I think under the influence of Mr. Giuliani, wanted to focus on one or two specific cases, irrespective of whether it helped solve the corruption problem, fight the corruption problem.”

Schiff then asked Taylor if he believed Giuliani was doing that because he believed it would benefit his client, President Trump, Taylor replied, “That’s my understanding.”

However, when Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) asked Taylor if he believed the condition was coming from Trump, he said, “I think it was coming from Mr. Giuliani.”

Zeldin followed up asking “But not from the President?” to which Taylor responded, “I don’t know.”

See what others are saying: (Vox) (The Washington Post) (Axios)

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Key Diplomat in Impeachment Inquiry Changes Testimony to Say Quid Pro Quo Happened

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  • The House Intelligence Committee released several transcripts from testimonies in the impeachment inquiry on Monday, including one from U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, a key player in the investigation.
  • Sondland had originally testified that there was no explicit quid pro quo involving security assistance to Ukraine in exchange for the country announcing an investigation presidential presidential candidate Joe Biden, a political rival of President Trump.
  • But the now-released transcript shows that Sondland later changed his testimony in an amendment.
  • In the amendment, Sondland wrote that he told an aide to Ukrainian President Zelensky “that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”

Sondland Testimony Released

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the EU who is a key witness in the impeachment inquiry, changed his testimony to say that there was a quid pro quo with Ukraine.

Sondland, generally considered a strong Trump ally, had previously denied that the U.S. withheld nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine to pressure the country to investigate presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Sondland was mentioned by name in the whistleblower’s complaint alongside the former U.S. envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker.

In the complaint, the whistleblower wrote that Volker and Sondland “reportedly provided advice to the Ukrainian leadership about how to ‘navigate’ the demands that the President had made of Mr. Zelenskyy.”

Sondland was also implicated in a set of text messages released by the House that involved key people organizing the call between President Donald Trump and Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the conversations that followed.

One of the most significant interactions from those texts was between Sondland and William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine where the two discussed the Trump administration’s decision to withhold aid.

During the conversation, Taylor texted Sondland: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”

Sondland responded to that concern, telling Taylor that Trump “has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind.”

“The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign I suggest we stop the back and forth by text,” he continued.

Sondland’s First Testimony

Sondland was supposed to testify on Oct. 8, but at the last minute, his testimony was blocked by the State Department. He ended up testifying about a week later.

Sondland initially told lawmakers that he knew Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani had told Ukraine to announce an investigation into Biden in exchange for a meeting between Trump and Zelensky at the Oval Office.

However, he denied direct quid pro quo involving military aid, saying, “I do not recall any discussions with the White House on withholding U.S. security assistance from Ukraine in return for assistance with the President’s 2020 re-election campaign.”

Sondland Changes Testimony

The now-released transcript shows that Sondland later went back and changed his testimony. 

In a supplemental statement, Sondland said that he remembered a conversation with a top Zelensky aide on Sept. 1, “where I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”

Sondland’s amended testimony is significant for two main reasons. 

First, it shows a senior official who is a central figure in the impeachment inquiry directly saying that Trump withheld aid from Ukraine in exchange for an investigation into his political rival. 

And second, Sondland changed his initial testimony after it was contradicted by testimonies from other top officials, and now his testimony matches up with theirs. 

Taylor and Morrison Contradict Sondland

One of the people that contradicted Sondland’s initial testimony was Taylor— the top diplomat to Ukraine who was implicated in the text messages.

In his testimony, Taylor said that Sondland told the same top Zelensky aide “that the security assistance money would not come until President Zelenskyy committed to pursue” the investigation into Biden.

Taylor also notably testified that Sondland later told him “that he now recognized that he had made a mistake by earlier telling the Ukrainian officials to whom he spoke that a White House meeting with President Zelensky was dependent on a public announcement of investigations — in fact, Ambassador Sondland said, ‘everything’ was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance.”

Taylor’s testimony was also later confirmed in another testimony from Tim Morrison, a former White House national security adviser.

Sondland said in his revised statement that Taylor and Morrison’s testimonies prompted him to recall the series of events differently.

See what others are saying: (Axios) (The Washington Post) (Vox)

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