U.S. Labour Secretary Alex Acosta defended his handling of a sex-trafficking case involving now-jailed financier Jeffrey Epstein on Wednesday, saying he tried to avoid a deal that would have allowed the wealthy businessman to “walk free.”

“Facts are important and facts are being overlooked,” Acosta told a news conference at Labour Department headquarters in Washington, where he retraced steps federal prosecutors took in the case a decade ago when he was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

Acosta is being assailed for his part in a secret 2008 plea deal that let Epstein avoid federal prosecution on charges that he molested teenage girls.

Acosta said Wednesday that the case started as a state matter, not with his office, and the Palm Beach state attorney’s office was “ready to let Epstein walk free. No jail time. Nothing.”

However, federal prosecutors found that to be unacceptable, Acosta said. He says prosecutors presented an ultimatum of pleading guilty to more serious charges that required jail time and restitution.

“He needed to go to jail,” Acosta said, “and that was the focus.” He added that allowing Epstein to avoid jail time would have been “absolutely awful.”

Facing new charges

The deal Acosta helped broker has come under new and intense scrutiny after prosecutors in New York on Monday brought new child sex-trafficking charges 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 said he welcomed the new case, saying Epstein’s “acts are despicable.”

Acosta defended himself Tuesday on Twitter, crediting “new evidence and additional testimony” uncovered by prosecutors in New York for providing “an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice.”

Epstein, seen here in 2008, is facing new sex-trafficking charges alleging he abused dozens of underage girls in the early 2000s. He has pleaded not guilty. (Palm Beach Post/Uma Sanghvi/The Associated Press)

Marc Short, chief of staff to Vice-President Mike Pence, also defended Acosta’s conduct, telling reporters, “The reality is that the defence attorneys in that case actually tried to get Alex removed because they thought he was such an aggressive prosecutor in this case.”

“As you heard Alex say yesterday, we welcome the fact that there is additional evidence that can be prosecuted,” Short said. “The crimes are atrocities and certainly should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Trump has, so far, also defended Acosta, praising his work as labour secretary and saying he felt “very badly” for him “because I’ve known him as being somebody that works so hard and has done such a good job.”

Still, he said, he would be looking at the circumstances of the case “very closely.” Trump typically gives his cabinet secretaries the opportunity to defend themselves publicly in interviews and press conferences before deciding whether to pull the plug on them.

Acosta said the thought the president was “kind” on Tuesday, and showed great support for him.

However, if Trump decides Acosta is no longer the best person for the job, the labour secretary said he would “respect that.”

Calls for resignation

Trump, who had once praised Epstein as “a terrific guy,” dissociated himself Tuesday from the wealthy hedge fund manager now charged with abusing minors, saying the two had a falling out 15 or so years ago and hadn’t spoken since.

Democratic presidential contenders and party leaders want Acosta to resign or be fired over the 2008 deal that has struck many prosecutors as unusually lenient. Under the deal, Epstein pleaded guilty to lesser state charges, averting a possible life sentence if convicted, and served 13 months in a work-release program. He was also required to make payments to victims and register as a sex offender.

Democratic Reps. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House oversight committee, and Jamie Raskin sent Acosta a letter Wednesday inviting him to testify on July 23.

Democratic Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz welcomed that move, saying Acosta “has a disturbing record on sexual and human trafficking that stretches from the horribly permissive plea agreement he gave to Jeffrey Epstein, up to his time now as labour secretary.”

Many Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have taken a wait-and-see approach. Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy said Tuesday that Acosta should hold a news conference to explain why he’d agreed to the plea bargain and answer all questions.

“Anybody who would look at this, just based on what’s been reported, would have questions,” Kennedy said. “That doesn’t mean necessarily that there aren’t answers.”