Bloomberg Law
Feb. 26, 2019, 8:25 PM

AFL-CIO Won’t Urge Labor Secretary Dismissal Over Teen Sex Case

Chris Opfer
Chris Opfer
Tyrone Richardson
Tyrone Richardson

The AFL-CIO, the world’s largest labor organization, won’t call for Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta to resign in the face of swirling criticism over his role in a controversial teen sex trafficking plea deal, sources tell Bloomberg Law.

Labor leaders in an AFL-CIO executive council meeting Feb. 26 said they’ll let a court battle, Justice Department investigation, and possible congressional probe play out before calling for Acosta to leave. Some council members raised questions about complications that may have made it harder for Acosta, then a federal prosecutor, to go after Miami hedge fund magnate Jeffrey Epstein. Others said they were concerned about Deputy Secretary Patrick Pizzella taking over at the Labor Department if Acosta steps down.

Acosta was U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida in 2007 when Epstein was accused of running a teen sex ring out of his Palm Beach mansion. Epstein eventually signed a plea deal that allowed him to serve 13 months on state prostitution charges and avoid convictions for more serious federal offenses. A November Miami Herald report on the case renewed public attention to it and what critics call Epstein’s “sweetheart” deal.

A federal judge ruled Feb. 21 that Acosta and other prosecutors violated federal law by keeping the plea deal secret. They didn’t tell Epstein’s alleged victims—36 were identified, ranging in age from 14 to 19 years old—about the agreement until after a judge approved it.

An AFL-CIO spokesman declined to comment on the decision not to urge Acosta to resign.

Some of the umbrella group’s member unions, including the American Federation of Teachers and the Association of Flight Attendants, and a handful of Democrats already have urged Acosta to step down. Democratic leadership in Congress and members of the committees with jurisdiction over the Justice Department and the DOL have so far stopped short of directly calling for Acosta to resign.

“I didn’t support him from the beginning because of the concerns that I have,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) told Bloomberg Law. “I am very disturbed by what has happened, and I would want a thorough investigation and action needs to be taken.”

The Justice Department recently announced that it launched an investigation into whether prosecutors committed professional misconduct, following calls from Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and a group of Florida House Democrats led by Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The DOJ’s inspector general has also asked Congress to pass legislation that would allow him to look into the case.

‘Fantastic Labor Secretary’

The Trump administration is so far standing by Acosta.

Acosta made the “best possible decision and deal” in a “very complicated case,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Feb. 22. President Donald Trump later the same day called Acosta “a fantastic labor secretary.”

Acosta was tapped for the job after Trump’s first pick—fast food executive Andy Puzder—bowed out in the face of decades-old domestic abuse allegations that his ex-wife later recanted.

Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, told Bloomberg Law he stands behind his vote to confirm Acosta.

“That was thoroughly discussed during Secretary Acosta’s confirmation hearing,” Alexander said. “It was a prosecutorial decision, which are often difficult decisions to make, and the secretary was approved by committee and confirmed by the Senate.”

Acosta is a former National Labor Relations Board member and law school dean who has worked steadily to put the Trump administration’s stamp on labor policy in nearly two years on the job. But he hasn’t moved as quickly to overturn the Obama administration’s worker-friendly approach as some business lobbyists would like.

Pizzella, a Republican operative who cut his teeth working with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, would likely be named acting secretary if Acosta were to step down. It’s widely believed the former George W. Bush administration DOL official who President Barack Obama nominated for a Republican seat on the Federal Labor Relations Authority would take a more aggressive stance against workers and unions.

Cooperation Questions

Acosta has told Bloomberg Law through a Labor Department spokeswoman that he “welcomes” the new DOJ investigation and stands by his work as a federal prosecutor. The spokeswoman said the Justice Department has backed Acosta’s actions through three administrations.

The former DOJ civil rights chief has previously said that he and other prosecutors were subjected to “a year-long assault” from Epstein’s defense lawyers.

Acosta’s supporters point out that the deal forced Epstein to compensate victims and register as a sex offender. They also say that some victims refused to cooperate with prosecutors, who had a tough time supporting federal instead of state charges by showing that the alleged crime happened across state lines.

Marie Villafana, who worked as a federal prosecutor under Acosta on the Epstein case, told a federal court in 2017 that one alleged victim who initially declined to speak with investigators was represented by a lawyer whose fees were paid by Epstein. The same alleged victim later told investigators that Epstein never had sexual contact with her, according to Villafana. She also said other alleged victims declined to participate in the prosecution’s case.

But Judge Kenneth Marra ruled last week that the prosecutors violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by keeping the alleged victims in the dark about the nonprosecution agreement. He pointed out that the deal meant that Epstein pleaded guilty to state crimes and that prosecutors dropped the federal investigation.

“Petitioners and the other victims should have been notified of the Government’s intention to take that course of action before it bound itself under the NPA,” Marra said. “Had the Petitioners been informed about the Government’s intention to forego federal prosecution of Epstein in deference to him pleading guilty to state charges, Petitioners could have conferred with the attorney for the Government and provided input.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Chris Opfer in New York at; Tyrone Richardson in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Phil Kushin at; Terence Hyland at