In this file photo taken on June 21, 2018 Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta speaks during a working lunch with governors in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, in Washington, DC. Image Credit: AFP

WASHINGTON: Labor Secretary R Alexander Acosta on Tuesday faced fresh calls to resign, and rising pressure from inside the Trump administration, over his role in brokering a lenient plea deal over sex crimes for New York financier Jeffrey E Epstein as a federal prosecutor in Miami more than a decade ago.

Acosta, 50, said this week that the plea agreement, in which Epstein served 13 months in jail after being accused of sexually abusing dozens of young women and girls, was the toughest deal available in a complex and difficult case. The prosecution, he said, would have stood a far better chance of succeeding in the state courts — the same argument he has been making for years.

“The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific, and I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence,” Acosta wrote on Tuesday on Twitter.

“With the evidence available more than a decade ago, federal prosecutors insisted that Epstein go to jail, register as a sex offender and put the world on notice that he was a sexual predator,” he continued. “Now that new evidence and additional testimony is available, the NY prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice.”

That is not likely to satisfy critics, who have long contended that Epstein should have faced a far harsher charge than a single count in state court of soliciting prostitution from a minor. The unusual arrangement reached with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office allowed Epstein to leave the county stockade six days a week to go to work. His jail sentence was for 18 months, but he was released five months early.

And in a twist that was later ruled illegal, the agreement between Acosta and one of Epstein’s lawyers, Jay P Lefkowitz, was initially kept secret from Epstein’s victims.

“Mr Acosta has a lot of explaining to do, and none of his public statements to date come anywhere close to providing a rational explanation,” said Jack Scarola, a Florida lawyer who represents several of the victims.

The indictment on Monday of Epstein by the US attorney in Manhattan, Geoffrey S Berman, on child sex trafficking charges — and a raid on the hedge fund mogul’s mansion that uncovered a cache of lewd photographs — represents a grave threat to Acosta and an implicit rebuke of the deal he cut as US attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

Congress’ top Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, called for his resignation, as did The Miami Herald, which uncovered the details of the plea deal.

“If Acosta, when he was US attorney in Miami, had shown an ounce of sympathy for the vulnerable girls Epstein sexually exploited, they would have had a powerful voice on their side,” the paper wrote in an editorial.

President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he felt “badly” for Acosta and praised him as “an excellent secretary of labour.” He added, “I do hear that there were a lot of people involved in that decision, not just him,” a reference to the Epstein deal. But he said the White House would look into the matter “very carefully.”

Two senior administration officials said Trump’s support for Acosta could quickly evaporate if more damaging details emerged about the plea agreement.

In South Florida, former law enforcement officials who referred the Epstein case to state and federal prosecutors in 2006 praised the New York prosecutors for completing a job they said Acosta could not, or would not, do.

“The appropriate authorities should apologise to the victims for the way that this was handled by prosecutors in Florida, change the laws that allow children to be labelled prostitutes and do whatever is necessary to make sure that this miscarriage of justice cannot happen again,” said Michael Reiter, who ran the Palm Beach Police Department at the time of the Epstein investigation.

The evidence against Epstein a decade ago in Florida was “overwhelming,” Scarola said.

“Epstein was not only given personal immunity, his named and unnamed co-conspirators were also immunised for all of their unspecified crimes,” he said. “That kind of get-out-of-jail-free card is unprecedented and a patent abuse of prosecutorial discretion.”

Epstein’s defence lawyers seem aware that any rulings weakening the Florida deal could strengthen the new case against him in New York. The lawyers argued in a court filing on Monday that even if prosecutors erred by not adequately notifying victims about the nonprosecution agreement, that should not result in further punishment against Epstein, who adhered to the terms of the deal.

On Tuesday, several Democrats in the 2020 presidential field attacked Trump, who socialised with Epstein and once described him as a “terrific guy,” for standing by Acosta.

The White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, did not reply to a request for comment.

White House officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly on personnel matters, said Trump regarded Acosta as a loyal and, until now, no-drama member of his Cabinet.

Acosta has not spoken with the president about the Epstein case recently, according to a senior White House official familiar with the situation.

None of Acosta’s fellow prosecutors in the US attorney’s office in Miami have come forward to publicly defend his conduct in the Epstein case. But two former Acosta colleagues and another former Justice Department lawyer familiar with the case cast his role in a more favourable light.

The case, they said, was flawed from the moment that FBI officials, frustrated that local prosecutors could not get Epstein labelled a sex offender, presented it to Acosta’s office in hopes of getting a tougher penalty.

The case was a headache from the start. In 2006, Epstein’s high-powered legal team met with senior prosecutors in Acosta’s office to persuade them to drop the case. Alan Dershowitz, one of Epstein’s lawyers, argued that the federal sex trafficking law cited in the 53-page indictment prepared by the FBI made the case difficult because Acosta’s team would have to prove that Epstein crossed state lines with the intent to abuse minors.