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Trying to tamp down calls for his resignation, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta on Wednesday defended his handling of a sex trafficking case involving now-jailed financier Jeffrey Epstein, insisting he got the toughest deal he could at the time.

In a nearly hourlong news conference, Acosta retraced the steps that federal prosecutors took in the case when he was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida a decade ago, insisting that "in our heart we were trying to do the right thing for these victims." He said prosecutors were working to avoid a more lenient arrangement that would have allowed Epstein to "walk free."

"We believe that we proceeded appropriately," he said. Critics say Epstein's penalty was egregiously light.

The episode reignited this week when federal prosecutors in New York brought a new round of child sex trafficking charges against the wealthy hedge fund manager. And on Wednesday, a new accuser stepped forward to say Epstein raped her in his New York mansion when she was 15.

Jennifer Araoz, now 32, told "Today" she never went to police because she feared retribution from the well-connected Epstein. She now has filed court papers seeking information from Epstein in preparation for suing him.

While the handling of the case arose during Acosta's confirmation hearings, it has come under fresh and intense scrutiny after the prosecutors in New York brought their charges on Monday, alleging Epstein abused dozens of underage girls in the early 2000s, paying them hundreds of dollars in cash for massages, then molesting them at his homes in Florida and New York. Epstein has pleaded not guilty to the charges; if convicted he could be imprisoned for the rest of his life.

Acosta's lawyerly presentation was an effort to push back against growing criticism of his work in a secret 2008 plea deal that let Epstein avoid federal prosecution on charges that he molested teenage girls. A West Palm Beach judge found this year that the deal had violated the Crime Victims' Rights Act because the victims were not informed or consulted.

He was also out to persuade President Donald Trump to keep him on the job as Democratic presidential candidates and party leaders called for his ouster.

Acosta insisted his office did the best it could under the circumstances a decade ago. He said state authorities had planned to go after Epstein with charges that would have resulted in no jail time until his office intervened and pressed for tougher consequences, a contention that is supported by the record. The alternative, he said, would have been for federal prosecutors to "roll the dice" and hope to win a conviction.

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"We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail," Acosta said. "He needed to go to jail."

 Epstein was given 13 months in a work-release program, which let him work out of the jail six days a week. Acosta said it was "entirely appropriate" to be outraged about that leniency, but he blamed that on Florida authorities. "Everything the victims have gone through in these cases is horrific," he said, while repeatedly refusing to apologize to them.

"I think it's important to stand up for the prosecutors" in his old office, he said.

His account did not sit well with Barry Krischer, who was the Palm Beach County attorney during the case. Krischer, a Democrat, said Acosta "should not be allowed to rewrite history."

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Amanda St. Amand • 314-340-8201

@mandystlpd on Twitter

astamand@post-dispatch.com

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