- 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)
New York City Moves to Ban Cashless Businesses
- New York City’s Council passed a bill on Thursday that prohibits businesses from going cashless.
- Supporters argue this approach discriminates against low-income groups, undocumented individuals, and people of color who are less likely to have bank accounts.
- Meanwhile, opponents of the cashless ban argue it is more convenient for workers to only deal with digital transactions.
- If New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio approves the bill, businesses will face a fine for refusing to accept cash as payment.
- San Francisco, Philadelphia, and New Jersey all approved cashless bans in businesses last year.
Cashless Ban Approved by City Council
New York City’s Council approved a bill on Thursday that bans businesses from going cashless.
The measure was almost unanimously passed and is an effort to decrease discrimination of low-income groups, undocumented individuals, and people of color who are less likely to have bank accounts or access to credit.
Councilmember Ritchie Torres was the bill’s lead sponsor.
“We in the City Council have real concerns that an increasingly cashless marketplace could have a real-world discriminatory effect on low-income communities, especially communities of color, that lack access to credit and debit,” Torres said at a press conference right before the bill was passed.
Just over 11% of households in New York — about 354,000 — do not have a bank account, according to a 2019 report by New York City’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection. An additional 21.8% of households are underbanked, meaning they have a bank account but use alternative financial methods for some needs.
Torres also noted that even those who do have access to bank accounts might still prefer cash because of its familiarity and its nature of allowing more privacy.
“Whatever your reasons, consumers should have the power to choose their preferred method of payment,” Torres said.
If the bill is approved by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, restaurants, stores, and other retail outlets will be required to accept cash as payment. If any businesses do refuse hard currency, they will be subject to a fine of $1,000 and $1,500 for each following offense.
Businesses will have the option of adopting cash conversion machines as long as the machines do not charge any extra fees. In the case that one of these machines is not working, the business must directly accept cash.
A spokesperson for Mayor de Blasio told The New York Times on Wednesday that he supported “the intent” of the bill, but still planned to go over it.
Cashless Ban Movement
New York City is the latest to pass legislation prohibiting businesses from refusing cash. In 2019, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and New Jersey all approved these bans for similar reasons.
While many are in favor of cashless bans, the idea has received pushback from others. Business owners have argued the method is more convenient for their workers. Leo Kremer, co-founder of the Dos Toros Taqueria chain that runs through New York City, has previously expressed this take.
“We are only interested in being cashless because it allows us to make our restaurant more seamless,” Kremer said at a hearing on the bill in February.
Kalman Yeger, a councilman from Brooklyn, thought those who voted for the bill were “overreaching.”
“We are inserting ourselves in the business of business in a way that we don’t have the right to,” Yeger told The New York Times.
See what others are saying: (ABC) (The New York Times) (Guardian)
U.S. Announces New Visa Rule Targeting “Birth Tourism”
- The Department of State unveiled a new rule aiming to stop pregnant women from coming to the U.S. to give birth so their children get American citizenship.
- The rule states that this practice — commonly referred to as “birth tourism” — “poses risks to national security.”
- The new regulation allows consular officers to deny visas to visitors if they believe they’re traveling to the U.S. for this purpose.
- It also requires those traveling to the U.S. for medical purposes to prove to consular officers that they can pay for the treatment they seek.
- The changes will go into effect as of Friday, Jan. 24.
Crackdown on Birth Tourism
The U.S. Department of State announced on Thursday plans to stop pregnant women from entering the country to give birth so their children are granted American citizenship, a practice commonly referred to as “birth tourism.”
Under the new rule, consular officers can deny visas to visitors if they believe their travel to the country is primarily for this purpose.
“The Department considers birth tourism an inappropriate basis for the issuance of temporary visitor visas,” the rule states.
The visas that this new regulation covers are those categorized as “B nonimmigrant visas,” issued for pleasure, medical purposes, or to visit friends or family.
“This rule reflects a better policy, as birth tourism poses risks to national security,” the Department of State said in the document. “The birth tourism industry is also rife with criminal activity, including international criminal schemes.”
By the law of the 14th Amendment, “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.”
President Donald Trump has spoken out about his disapproval of this policy before. In the past, he has called it a “magnet for illegal immigration,” and last August he expressed his wish to remove it.
The State Department’s new rule will officially take effect on Friday, Jan. 24. It will only affect those from countries who need a visa to visit the United States.
In addition to cracking down on birth tourism, the State Department’s new rule also tightens qualifications for those seeking medical treatment in the U.S.
It requires that those seeking a nonimmigrant visa for this reason “must demonstrate, to the satisfaction of the consular officer,” their ability to pay for their sought-after medical services, as well as proof that a medical practitioner has already agreed to help.
Reactions to the New Rule
After the Department of State’s new rule was made public, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham gave it her nod of approval.
“It will also defend American taxpayers from having their hard-earned dollars siphoned away to finance the direct and downstream costs associated with birth tourism,” Grisham said in a statement. “The integrity of American citizenship must be protected.”
Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona tweeted a link to The New York Times article on the story and added a simple word of support: “Good.”
Others, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, were not happy about the change.
“This administration is now targeting pregnant. women.” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “When you single out the most vulnerable, the cruelty is the point.”
Supreme Court Hears Landmark Case Regarding Scholarships for Religious Schools
- The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a potential landmark case that could allow religious schools to receive publicly-funded scholarships, even if a state’s constitution says they can’t.
- The case involves a Montana program that was ended after the state realized it was unintentionally being used to aid religious schools using taxpayer money.
- Opponents argue that the provision, which prohibits public funds from going to religious organizations, is rooted in religious discrimination.
Montana Sparks Lawsuit After Ending Scholarship Program
The Supreme Court of the United States began hearing Wednesday what could potentially be a landmark case concerning the separation of church and state for schools.
Specifically, the Court is considering a case out of Montana that could allow religious schools to receive publicly-funded scholarships, even if a state’s constitution prohibits such a move.
The situation that now sits upon SCOTUS’s doorstep began in 2015 when the Montana state legislature created a tax-credit program for people wanting to donate to a scholarship fund.
That program allowed people to donate dollar-for-dollar tax credits up to $150.
An organization named Big Sky then capitalized on the program and created a fund to help parents wanting to send their children to private schools; however, there was a catch: 12 of the 13 schools that Big Sky sent money to were religious. In fact, about 70% of private schools in the state are religious schools.
Those donations directly conflict with Montana’s state constitution, which says the state cannot set aside public money for “…any sectarian purpose or to aid any church, school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other literary or scientific institution, controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination.”
Such a law is known as a “no-aid” provision.
Montana later decided to cut the program before eventually being sued on the basis of religious discrimination. One attorney argued that the only reason Montana shut down the program was because it included religious schools. That attorney also argued that the U.S. Constitution mandates equal protection under the law. In other words, Montana must apply the tax-credit program equally between private schools, both religious and nonreligious.
“Once you have these programs, you have to treat families going to religious schools equal to families going to nonreligious schools,” that attorney, Erica Smith, told NPR.
The case’s lead plaintiff—Kendra Espinoza— had also been vocal about her need for such a program.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Espinoza said not only did she have to pick up extra jobs but she also “pretty much sold everything in my house that wasn’t tied down” just to afford to send her two daughters to a religious private school. In addition to that, her two daughters took on jobs mowing lawns and cleaning offices to raise money.
Espinoza’s accounts are a far cry from the common stereotype that only rich people send their children to private schools, with Espinoza even directly saying that her family needs assistance to be able to afford private school.
“Baby” Blaine Amendments
While Montana didn’t introduce its tax-credit program until 2015, Espinoza’s case is also rooted in law that dates back to the 1800s.
In 1875, a politician by the name James G. Blaine introduced a similar “no-aid” amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That ended up failing, but different versions of it were adopted in most states, with Montana passing theirs in 1889.
Most historians have referred to the original proposed amendment as the “Blaine Amendment,” with the later ones being dubbed “baby” Blaine Amendments. Historians also agree that such amendments were only adopted in a bigoted retaliation to the mass immigration of Catholics into the U.S.
Thus, since the law was borne of bigotry against Catholics, Espinoza and her lawyers argued that it violates the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against religion.
On the other hand, the state of Montana disputed the discrimination claim, pointing out that its “no-aid” provision was revised and rewritten in 1972.
The state even had all but one of the surviving delegates at that 1972 convention submit a brief discussing how the revised Constitution was debated. According to NPR, one delegate even says that a number of the delegates were also ministers, with many of them speaking “very ardently in favor of public funds not going to religious education.”
That delegate, Mae Nan Ellingson, also argued that the state passed the “no-aid” provision to “protect religious liberty,” saying the state feared that if religious organizations were included, someone in the future might try to attach conditions to the aid.
The case eventually made its way to the Montana Supreme Court, where the Court ruled the state had not violated religious protections granted by the U.S. Constitution.
U.S. Supreme Court Takes Up the Case
That decision, however, was then appealed to the SCOTUS, which began hearing arguments Wednesday.
In its brief, Montana continued to defend its no-aid provision, saying, “The No-Aid Clause does not prohibit any religious practice. Nor does it authorize any discriminatory benefits program. It simply says that Montana will not financially aid religious schools.”
On Espinoza’s side, the Trump Administration and Education Secretary Betsy Devos have backed her. The move is not an unexpected one for Devos, who attended private school herself and later sent her kids to private schools. Devos is also a heavy advocate of “faith-based education.”
With this case now reaching SCOTUS, any decision could have far-reaching effects. Including Montana, 38 states have no-aid provisions.
If Montana wins, its tax-credit program would remain shut down. It would then continue to be able to keep public money away from religious schools, but religious schools would still be able to receive federal funds.
However, if the state loses, religious schools across the country—regardless of previous state law—might be able to access scholarship funds paid for by taxes.
Currently, the latter decision appears to be the more likely outcome. In recent years, the Court has become more conservative on church vs. state issues. In 2017, it decided that Missouri couldn’t ban a church school for applying for a state grant that fixes up playgrounds. Since then, the court has only grown more conservative, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh joining the bench.