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Facing calls for resignation, Acosta defends Epstein deal

WASHINGTON

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 hour-long 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, a contention challenged by critics who 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 that are preparatory to 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 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.

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

But Epstein only 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.”

Acosta’s South Florida office had gotten to the point of drafting an indictment that could have sent Epstein to federal prison for life. But it was never filed, leading to Epstein’s guilty plea to two state prostitution-related charges. In addition to the work-release jail sentence, Epstein was required to make payments to victims and register as a sex offender.

Krischer said the federal indictment was “abandoned after secret negotiations between Mr. Epstein’s lawyers and Mr. Acosta.” He added: “If Mr. Acosta was truly concerned with the State’s case and felt he had to rescue the matter, he would have moved forward with the 53-page indictment that his own office drafted.”

Acosta has said he welcomes the new case and earlier defended himself 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.”

Pressed on whether he had any regrets, Acosta repeatedly suggested that circumstances had changed since the case arose. “We now have 12 years of knowledge and hindsight and we live in a very different world,” he said. “Today’s world treats victims very, very differently.”

Trump has, so far, also defended Acosta, praising his work as labor 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.”

Though Trump might have made the tagline “You’re fired!” famous on his reality show “The Apprentice,” he has shown a pattern of reluctance to fire even his most embattled aides. Trump, for instance, took months to dismiss Scott Pruitt as Environmental Protection Agency administrator despite a dizzying array of scandals and allowed Jeff Sessions to remain as attorney general for more than a year even as he railed against and belittled him.

Trump typically gives his Cabinet secretaries the opportunity to defend themselves publicly in interviews and press conferences before deciding whether to pull the plug. Indeed, he encouraged Acosta to hold Wednesday’s press conference laying out his thinking and involvement in the plea deal, according to a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Early reaction in the White House appeared to be positive, with one official saying the performance was likely enough to buy Acosta more time unless questions about his part in the 2008 case linger in the news.

Trump has his own long personal history with Epstein but has dissociated himself from the wealthy hedge fund manager, saying this week the two had a falling out 15 or so years ago and haven’t spoken since.

Acosta told reporters that his relationship with Trump remains “outstanding” but also noted that every member of Trump’s Cabinet serves at the president’s pleasure.

Democratic presidential contenders and party leaders have been calling for Acosta to resign or be fired, and he has been called to testify in front of the House Oversight Committee on July 23. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, 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 Labor Secretary.”

Many Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have taken a wait-and-see approach.


Government
top story
Rock County Board reinstates employee fired over suspicions of stealing toilet paper

JANESVILLE

A longtime Rock County employee fired amid accusations that she stole 11 rolls of toilet paper from the Rock Haven nursing home has been reinstated to her job.

The county has spent more than $12,000 in legal fees on the case.

Rock County Board members voted 19-7 June 27 to reverse decisions made by the nursing home administrator, Rock County Human Resources Director Annette Mikula and an impartial hearing officer to fire Patti Wilbanks, a certified nursing assistant.

Wilbanks has denied stealing toilet paper from a restroom over the course of a month.

Some county board members questioned why the county triggered a lengthy, time-consuming process over the theft of toilet paper.

“At some point, somebody should probably think on their own and be like, ‘Why are we going so far on this? What is this costing the county? What are our priorities? What’s important to us?’” board member Yuri Rashkin said.

Rock County has paid Shana Lewis, its outside legal counsel, $12,801 through May 31 to handle the grievance.

Rock County Administrator Josh Smith said last week the county will review its grievance policy and could bring it back to the board for changes. He also said some county board members are interested in looking into employment practices at Rock Haven.

“I think there is going to be outcomes from this that will give us more insights into our process issues,” Smith said.

The Gazette has a pending open records request seeking more details on the case.

The board’s vote June 27 came after a lengthy Stage 5 grievance hearing in which Lewis argued for Wilbanks’ termination. It was an unusual move for the county board, which has not had such a hearing in at least four years.

The hearing was the final step in the county’s formal grievance procedure, which was created after the passage of Act 10 in 2011. Other steps include appealing an employee’s termination to Mikula and an impartial hearing officer.

Lewis said during the hearing the incident began after some at Rock Haven had suspected someone was stealing toilet paper from a restroom.

Laurie Greenfield, a registered nurse at Rock Haven, “investigated” the shortage by counting the number of rolls in the restroom, Lewis said.

On three occasions, Greenfield counted the rolls of toilet paper and then observed Wilbanks enter and leave the restroom. Lewis said the employee recounted the rolls shortly after Wilbanks exited and noticed a total of 11 fewer rolls over three incidents.

“In all three incidents, (Greenfield) did not observe anyone else enter the restroom before she recounted the toilet paper,” Lewis told the board. “Further, on all three days, (Wilbanks) left the restroom and then the building while holding her jacket in her arms instead of wearing it.”

Lewis said the nursing home administrator and an assistant human resources employee investigated the accusations. Wilbanks denied stealing the toilet paper, Lewis said. She eventually was fired.

Lewis seemed to indicate Wilbanks might not have been fired if she had “taken responsibility and apologized” for stealing toilet paper.

Rashkin, who supported Wilbanks’ reinstatement during discussions at the hearing, said there was no evidence presented and questioned why the firing was brought in front of board members.

“How come this process went through all of these steps and nobody thought to stop this? Why did it have to end up in front of the county board of supervisors?” Rashkin asked. “... I feel like the board sent a message, and hopefully this will affect and improve relations within the organization.”


Obituaries and death notices fr July 11, 2019

Susan Lee Arnold

Edward J. Cygan Sr.

August John Hartlaub

Kenneth “Kenny” Jenson

Richard A. Klementz

Allen C. Lehman

Barb E. Nehls

Suzanne E. Rasmussen

Richard E. “Dick” Rood

Robert “Bob” Rowley

Joan Ellen Schulte


Local
top story
Invasive plants at Big Hill Park beware: Goats are there

BELOIT

Conservationist Kevin Kawula snapped off an invasive European buckthorn branch hanging over a hiking path at Big Hill Park and tossed it over an electric fence encircling an overgrown 1-acre prairie plot.

The branch landed among a herd of spiral-horned goats quietly grazing in the fenced area.

Three goats startled, then regarded the buckthorn sprig with unblinking eyes that had coin slot-shaped pupils.

One goat grunted, raising the attention of a squadron of about 25 others. The goat bleated. Then it and about 15 other goats raced to the felled branch, descending on it from all sides. A frenzy of gnawing, gnashing goat teeth tore away bark, leaves and berries.

This was not the goat-zombie apocalypse.

But staff at the Welty Environmental Center at Beloit’s Big Hill Park hope that a tribe of 70 goats-for-hire will inflict a grisly death upon invasive plants that have weakened and altered the park’s native prairie ecosystem.

Brenda Plakans, Welty’s executive director, is in charge of the goat-grazing pilot program funded by patrons and donors to her nonprofit education and conservation group. She has organized a partnership with the Green Goat, a Monroe-based company that hires out goats as a biological control tool.

The goats will be at the park to eat—and ultimately weaken and destroy—dozens of varieties of tall, brushy invasive plants that have been here since Wisconsin’s earliest settlers introduced them as medicinal plants, landscaping and animal fencing barriers in the mid-1800s.

The invasives—honeysuckle, buckthorn, multiflora roses, garlic mustard, wild parsnip and a slew of rash-inducing ivies and sumacs—have worked for decades to overtake trees and native grasses that otherwise might thrive at Big Hill Park.

The park is on a high bluff along the Rock River just north of Beloit. The bluff itself is an outwash area, a geological formation created when glaciers moved in and receded in southern Wisconsin, pushing and pulling deposits of sand, gravel and fertile prairie soil into large hills.

Neil Johnson 

One of a herd of 70 goats grazes on an invasive wild parsnip in a paddock of fenced-in prairie at Big Hill Park in Beloit. Welty Environmental Center, which operates in the 190-acre park, is using the goats to help clear invasive plants that are taking over the prairie.

“The research we’ve done shows that the prairie here at Big Hill really is an oak savanna prairie, which is a mix of native prairie grasses and trees. But it’s not really been that for decades,” Plakans said.

Over the prior century, much of Big Hill’s prairie was cleared for farming. It returned to its natural state over the last few decades. Plakans and Kawula, a member of the Rock County Conservationists, said Big Hill’s return to a prairie has been hindered partly because invasive plants got a foothold.

The invasives begin by forming small, brushy areas, but they quickly take over and crowd out other plants, creating thickets of weeds, thorns and noxious plants that are difficult to remove.

Kawula said the non-native plants also have altered the soil’s chemistry, which can make it harder for native plants to thrive.

The grazing goats from Green Goats might be able to help change that.

In a few acres of prairie near the Welty center, a former Girl Scout facility, Plakans and volunteers have set up electric fencing around an area full of non-native bushes, scrub ivy and overgrown saplings.

Green Goats’ owner, Kim Hunter, brought in her herd of goats this week, and the goats immediately turned the area into a grazing paddock.

The Welty center learned about the goats after Alliant Energy hired Green Goats to bring in a tribe of its goats to clear invasive species from part of the Riverside Energy Center in the town of Beloit.

Neil Johnson 

A herd of 70 goats grazes in a 1-acre paddock of prairie at Big Hill Park in Beloit. The goats will be working at the prairie for about two weeks, clearing invasive plants that are hard for humans to remove.

“It’s hard to clear the invasive plants by hand, and takes a lot of volunteers to do this work. Plus chemicals. With the goats, there are no chemicals. That fits right along with our mission,” Plakans said.

The goats’ first round of work will roll out over the next two weeks. They will trim invasive weeds and eat branches—wood, bark, everything—from the treelike bushes, weakening those plants.

Later in fall, the goats could be back to graze the paddock a second time. That will further weaken the invasive plants, to the point that the native prairie might begin to override the weeds.

The goats’ hooves naturally aerate the soil, and their droppings act as a naturally composting fertilizer that Kawula said will help restore the prairie’s native soil composition.

And unlike other ruminants, goats’ teeth thoroughly grind up plant seeds. That means goat manure doesn’t plant weed seeds that could regrow later.

Plakans said it can cost $3,500 or so for a two-week stint of goat-powered weed eradication, depending on the size of the area the goats must clear and how dense the weed cover is.

So far, the goats have been voracious weed eaters.

This week, they were observed “climbing trees” in teams of two or three. That is, the goats were standing on their hind legs and using their forelegs to bend down and snap off the branches of tall buckthorn bushes.

“They’ve got a dozen or more invasive plant species to eat. And these plants are native to all corners of the Earth, stuff from Europe and Asia,” Kawula said. “It’s truly an international dining experience for them.”