NEW YORK (CBSMiami/AP) – A growing number of congressional Democrats are calling for U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta to step down because of his role in a secret 2008 plea deal that let wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein avoid prison after allegations of molesting dozens of teenage girls.
On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called for Acosta’s resignation as did Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, both presidential candidates, and Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, the party’s 2016 vice presidential nominee.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said the same late Monday.
WATCH: Former Assistant US Attorney David Weinstein joins CBS4 to discuss the latest on the Jeffrey Epstein case:
Acosta and by extension President Donald Trump, who appointed him to his Cabinet post, have drawn renewed attention since federal prosecutors unveiled an indictment Monday charging Epstein with sexually abusing dozens of underage girls in the early 2000s.
Epstein, known for a jet-setting lifestyle and connections to the powerful including Trump and former President Bill Clinton, could face up to 45 years in prison if he is convicted on the sex trafficking and conspiracy charges. He has pleaded not guilty.
Acosta was a South Florida federal prosecutor when he was involved in a 2008 plea deal that let Epstein avoid prosecution on federal charges. That investigation involved at least 40 teenage girls, and the agreement let him avoid a possible life sentence if he had been convicted.
Schumer said on the Senate floor that the evidence against Epstein in 2008 was overwhelming, and he expressed incredulity that Acosta was able to agree to an arrangement that let him avoid prison. He said Acosta should step aside and Trump should fire him if he does not.
“Instead of prosecuting a predator and serial sex trafficker of children, Acosta chose to let him off easy,” Schumer said. “This is not acceptable. We cannot have as one of the leading appointed officials in America someone who has done this.”
Klobuchar tweeted, “Since when do underage girl sex ring traffickers get to go to their office every day while they serve their time?”
Under the 2008 deal, Epstein pleaded guilty to state charges of soliciting a minor for prostitution and served 13 months in jail, during which he was allowed out to go to his office during the day.
Referring to the Labor secretary’s post, Gillibrand told a reporter in Manchester, New Hampshire, that Acosta “never should have been there in the first place.”
Monday night, Pelosi tweeted, “As US Attorney, he engaged in an unconscionable agreement w/ Jeffrey Epstein kept secret from courageous, young victims preventing them from seeking justice. This was known by @POTUS when he appointed him to the cabinet.” She added the hashtag, #AcostaResign.
“It is classic her and her Democratic party to not focus on the perpetrator but focus on the Trump administration,” said President Trump adviser Kelly Anne Conway.
Trump had called Epstein a “terrific guy” in a New York Magazine article in 2002 and said he’d known the financier for 15 years.
“He’s a lot of fun to be with,” Trump was quoted as saying. “It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it — Jeffrey enjoys his social life.”
Conway said Tuesday that Trump hasn’t had any contact with Epstein in “years and years and years.” She said Trump considers the actions Epstein is accused of “completely unconscionable and obviously criminal. Disgusting.”
On Tuesday, Trump said he would look “very closely” at Acosta’s handling of the Florida sex trafficking case and praised his Cabinet work.
Speaking to reporters, Trump said he feels “very badly” for Acosta and praised him as “very good” at his job.
(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)