190712 Alex Acosta
Alex Acosta Image Credit: Reuters

Washington : Labour Secretary Alex Acosta said Friday he would resign in a surprise appearance with President Donald Trump.

“I thought the right thing was to step aside,” Acosta told reporters at the White House. “It would be selfish for me to stay in this position.”

Acosta leaves after heightened scrutiny of his handling of sexual misconduct charges against Jeffrey Epstein following the announcement of the financier’s indictment on Monday. As the top federal prosecutor in south Florida in 2007 and 2008, Acosta signed off on a lenient plea deal with Epstein that allowed him to resolve the earlier charges by serving 13 months in a county jail and registering as a sex offender.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan said Monday that they were charging Epstein for crimes he committed outside Florida, and that they aren’t bound by Acosta’s plea deal. Epstein has been charged with trafficking girls as young as 14 for sex in the latest case.

Acosta said Wednesday in a news conference that Epstein would have escaped jail time altogether had his office not been involved in the earlier case. But he was criticised by some Democrats for not offering an apology to Epstein’s victims, who didn’t know about the plea deal while it was being negotiated.

“In so many ways I hate what he’s saying now because we’re going to miss him,” Trump said. He said he had told Acosta he didn’t have to resign.

Trump also further distanced himself from Epstein, a former associate who has a home in Palm Beach, where the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort is located. Trump said he had a falling-out with Epstein but declined to explain the circumstances - “the reason doesn’t make any difference,” he said - and repeated that he hasn’t spoken to Epstein in 15 years.

The president said he’d thrown Epstein out of Mar-a-Lago and that he had never visited Epstein’s Little St. James Island in the Caribbean, a place that locals call “Pedophile Island” and “Orgy Island.”

Trump said Acosta’s deputy, Patrick Pizzella, will become acting secretary of the Labour Department. Pizzella is regarded by Democrats and Labour unions as more aggressively pro-business than Acosta. He previously worked with notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff to try to shield a tiny cluster of Pacific Islands from federal Labour and immigration laws.

Abramoff was the subject of one of the largest congressional lobbying scandals in recent history and was sentenced to federal prison after pleading guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials.