July 12 (UPI) -- U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta resigned Friday amid increasing scrutiny over a plea agreement he made years ago with billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein, when Acosta was a federal prosecutor in Florida.
Acosta called President Donald Trump to inform him of the resignation, saying he didn't want the Epstein case to be a distraction. Trump said he will be replaced on an interim basis by Patrick Pizzella, Acosta's deputy at the department.
Federal prosecutors in New York say Epstein, 66, engaged in sex acts with girls as young as 14 over a period of three years in the early 2000s. He also used young women recruit other girls to be part of a supposed sex trafficking operation, the charges say. Epstein has denied wrongdoing.
The House oversight committee sent a letter to Acosta Wednesday asking him to testify about his involvement in negotiating a federal non-prosecution deal in a separate 2008 case that allowed Epstein to avoid a lengthy prison sentence on other charges.
Acosta received bipartisan support when he was confirmed as labor secretary and won praise from Trump for slashing regulations and pushing growth for apprenticeship programs. He led the civil rights division at the Justice Department under former President George W. Bush before taking over as U.S. Attorney in Miami. He ultimately became dean of the law school at Florida International University.
When Trump's first choice for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, withdrew over questions about his business record, Acosta became the lead candidate. Trump said this week he'd take a closer look at the controversy, and Friday said he'd done a good job as labor chief.
Critics say Acosta's plea deal for Epstein was too lenient for the sex crimes he was accused of. Some said the deal broke federal law because the victims were not told about the agreement.
"There are significant concerns with Secretary Acosta's actions in approving an extremely favorable deal for an alleged sexual predator while concealing the deal from the victims of Mr. Epstein's crimes, which a judge found violated the Crime Victims' Rights Act," House Democrats wrote to the Justice Department Office of Professional Responsibility.
Acosta defended the deal this week, saying federal prosecutors got involved when it appeared Florida authorities wouldn't file charges. He said if it was not for federal prosecutors, Epstein would have gotten a more lenient sentence.
"The goal here was straightforward," Acosta told reporters Wednesday. "Put Epstein behind bars, ensure he registered as a sex offender, provide victims with a means to seek restitution and protect the public by putting them on notice that a sexual predator was within their midst.
"We believe we proceeded appropriately."
"He made a deal that people were happy with and then 12 years later, they're not happy with it," Trump said Friday. "This [resignation] was him, not me."
Former Palm Beach County state attorney Barry Krischer criticized Acosta's response, saying his recollection of the case "is completely wrong." He said Florida did charge Epstein with a felony count of solicitation of prostitution, before Acosta's office drew up a 53-page indictment he said was "abandoned after secret negotiations between Mr. Epstein's lawyers and Mr. Acosta."
The case regained traction this year after an investigative series by the Miami Herald highlighted the deal, which included comment from Epstein accusers who said they were shut out of the process.