Democratic lawmakers Wednesday pressed Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta about his conduct as a federal prosecutor during plea deal negotiations with billionaire Jeffrey Epstein in 2007-08.
In February, the Department of Justice office of professional responsibility opened an investigation into allegations that DOJ attorneys, including Mr. Acosta, may have committed professional misconduct for the manner in which Mr. Epstein's criminal matter was resolved.
Mr. Epstein sexually abused more than 30 girls from about 1999 to 2007 at his home in Palm Beach, Fla., according to court documents.
At a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the DOL budget Wednesday, Mr. Acosta publicly addressed the controversy for the first time since the DOJ investigation was launched.
During questioning, Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., said the "hideous truth has come out."
"If you as U.S. attorney, as a prosecutor where your job is to pursue justice, could not fight for these girls, how as secretary of labor can you tell this panel and the American people that you can responsibly oversee this budget (and) the Department of Labor, including human trafficking?" she asked.
Mr. Acosta pushed back on Ms. Clark's assessment, saying the DOJ has defended the office's actions in this case for the past 12 years. "The facts in this case were presented to a grand jury that actually recommended a charge that would've carried no jail time at all," he said. "And at the end Mr. Epstein went to jail. Epstein was incarcerated, he registered as a sex offender, the world was put on notice that he was a sex offender and the victims received restitution."
"Thirteen months in county jail, 12 hours a day work release," Ms. Clark responded, indicating Mr. Esptein's plea agreement. "You consider that justice for the devastation of these girls?"
On Feb. 21, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra ruled that the federal prosecutors did not adequately keep Mr. Epstein's victims informed about the plea deal negotiations while they were ongoing. "While the government spent untold hours negotiating the terms and implications of the (non-prosecution agreement) with Epstein's attorneys, scant information was shared with victims," Mr. Marra wrote. "Instead, the victims were told to be 'patient' while the investigation proceeded."
Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., did not question Mr. Acosta about the case Wednesday, but she said that "a lot of us have a lot more questions. We want to get to the bottom of this."
Mr. Trump nominated Mr. Acosta in February 2017. How Mr. Acosta and his colleagues handled the Epstein case was brought up during his Senate confirmation hearing. The Senate went on to confirm his nomination in April 2017 in a 60-38 vote. Nine Democrats and one independent were among those voting in favor of his appointment.