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Attorney General William Barr will not recuse himself from involvement in the new federal criminal prosecution of accused child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, an official said Tuesday.
But Barr will recuse himself from an internal Justice Department probe of current Labor Secretary Alex Acosta's involvement in approving a controversial no-prosecution deal with the wealthy financier a decade ago, an official said.
Barr's announced decision to have oversight of the Epstein prosecution came after reports that he had recused himself from the case, which is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York.
And it came as a bevy of Democratic members of Congress and presidential candidates demanded that Acosta resign because of his role as then-U.S. attorney in Miami in signing off on a deal to not prosecute Epstein in the mid-2000s.
Epstein, 66, is accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls from 2002 to 2005 after they were brought to his luxurious residences on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and in Palm Beach, Florida, under the pretext of giving him massages.
The former friend of President Donald Trump and ex-President Bill Clinton pleaded not guilty on Monday, and is being held without bail pending a detention hearing next week.
Epstein was being eyed for the same alleged conduct in Florida that federal prosecutors have now charged him with in Manhattan.
A Justice Department official on Tuesday said that Barr consulted with career ethics officials at the department, and concluded he did not have to recuse himself from the current prosecution in Manhattan.
However, Barr was quoted Monday as saying he was recusing himself from the Epstein case.
"I'm recused from that matter because one of the law firms that represented Epstein long ago was a firm I subsequently joined for a period of time," Barr told reporters Monday.
Barr joined that law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, in 2009.
Kirkland & Ellis had represented Epstein in 2008, when he was being investigated in Florida. Acosta also previously had worked at Kirkland & Ellis.
Barr's comment Monday seems to have referred — or does so now — to his continued recusal from the Justice Department's internal probe into the nonprosecution of Epstein as signed off by Acosta.
"Due to his prior association with Kirkland and Ellis, the Attorney General has and will remain recused from any retrospective review of the resolution of the earlier [Southern District of Florida] matter," the Justice Department official told CNBC on Tuesday.
Frank Figliuzzi, a former FBI assistant director, told CNBC that Barr was making "a distinction without a difference" in jutisfying his decisions to recuse himself in one instance related to Epstein, but not the other one. He said that Barr's work for a firm that represented Epstein was enough to justify recusing himself from overseeing the current prosecution.
Figliuzzi, who is a national security contributor to NBC News, said that the issues in the current prosecution and the decision not to prosecute Epstein a decade ago are "inexorably linked," and that Barr should have recused himself in both cases.
And Figliuzzi said that even without Barr's connection to Kirkland & Ellis, there was another reason for Barr to recuse himself from anything to do with Epstein.
Figliuzzi cited press reports that Barr's father, while serving as headmaster of the exclusive Dalton private school in Manhattan in the 1970s, had hired a 20-something Epstein to teach math despite Epstein not having a college degree.
Epstein had pleaded guilty in 2008 to a state charge of procuring a person under 18 for prostitution and felony solicitation of prostitution. He was sentenced to 13 months incarceration, but most of that time was spent on work release or in the private wing of a jail.
Epstein registered as a sex offender in Florida under the nonprosecution agreement he signed with the Miami U.S. Attorney's Office then led by Acosta.
A federal judge in February said that Acosta and other federal prosecutors had violated the rights of Epstein's victims during their probe of him in Florida by failing to notify the victims that they had cut a nonprosecution deal with him, while leading the woman to believe that federal charges were still a possibility.
The Miami Herald had reported that Acosta helped arranged the deal under which Epstein would plead guilty to the relatively minor state charge, and hide the agreement with victims until the arrangement was presented in court.
The Justice Department in February launched its internal probe into how Acosta and other prosecutors handled the Epstein case, and into the question of whether they committed professional misconduct.
Trump told reporters on Tuesday that Acosta has "been a very good secretary of Labor."
But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., on Tuesday joined the growing chorus of calls for Acosta to step down from the Labor Department.
"Epstein should have been behind bars years ago, but unfortunately Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta cut Epstein a sweetheart deal while Acosta was a U.S. attorney in Florida in 2008," Schumer said.
"I am calling on Secretary Acosta to resign. It is now impossible for anyone to have confidence in Secretary Acosta's ability to lead the department of Labor," Schumer said. "If he refuses to resign President Trump should fire him. Instead of prosecuting a predator and serial sex trafficker of children, Acosta chose to let him off easy."
Acosta, who has resisted calls to quit, tweeted his support of the New York prosecution on Tuesday.