Washington: Alex Acosta is stepping down as the US Labour Secretary amid controversy over the plea bargain he negotiated with accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein in 2008 while serving as a federal prosecutor.
President Donald Trump made the announcement with Acosta at his side in front of reporters at the White House on Friday, reports Efe news. The President said the secretary telephoned him early Friday to say that he had decided to resign, emphasizing that the decision was entirely Acosta's.
"As I look forward, I do not think it is right and fair for this administration's labour department to have Epstein as the focus rather than the incredibly economy we have today," Acosta said. "I told (Trump) the right thing was to step aside."
The President described Acosta as a "great Labour Secretary, not a good one" and praised him for the "very good job" he did as head of the Labour Department.
The resignation came less than 48 hours after Acosta held an extended press conference to defend his handling of the Epstein case as a federal attorney in Miami.
Epstein, known for friendships with high-profile figures such as Trump, former American President Bill Clinton and Britain's Prince Andrew, was arrested on July 6 when he arrived back in the US aboard his private jet after a visit to France, on orders from the office of the attorney for the Southern District of New York.
In a court appearance on Monday, the 66-year-old hedge fund manager pleaded not guilty to federal sex trafficking charges for alleged offences committed between 2002 and 2005 at Epstein's mansion in Manhattan and his estate in Palm Beach, Florida.
Epstein was first accused of sexually abusing minors more than a decade ago, but negotiations between his lawyers and Acosta resulted in a confidential deal that saw the mogul plead guilty to state charges and serve 13 months in a county jail.
"Epstein sexually exploited and abused dozens of underage girls by enticing them to engage in sex acts with him in exchange for money. Epstein allegedly worked with several employees and associates to ensure that he had a steady supply of minor victims to abuse, and paid several of those victims themselves to recruit other underage girls to engage in similar sex acts for money," according to the indictment unsealed Monday in New York.
The indictment said that some victims were as young as 14 at the time of the acts and that a number of the girls told Epstein they were minors. Acosta had always defended the plea deal as appropriate given the circumstances due to the reluctance of "many victims" to testify, but the explanations he offered at this week's press conference provoked further criticism.
Earlier this year, a US district judge in Florida concluded that the 2008 agreement between Acosta and Epstein's attorney violated the law. Epstein could be sentenced to up to 45 years in prison if convicted on one count each of sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking.
Prosecutors have requested that Epstein, whose several homes include a residence on his private island in the Caribbean, be held without bail. On Thursday, the defendant's lawyers asked the judge hearing the case to grant Epstein pre-trial release in exchange for posting bail of $77 million and surrendering his passport.