When the Justice Department named R. Alexander Acosta the new U.S. attorney in South Florida in 2005, he was largely an unknown to federal prosecutors in Miami.
Many viewed him with suspicion because he had never tried any criminal cases, and some feared he would carry the torch of the arch-conservative bosses that President George W. Bush had picked to run the Justice Department — John Ashcroft and his successor, Alberto Gonzales.
Acosta, who grew up in Miami, had lost touch with his roots after attending Harvard University and pursuing a career in Washington. But the Republican gradually reconnected with South Florida, won over his skeptics and gained the respect of leaders in the local legal and law enforcement establishment.
On Thursday, President Donald Trump nominated the 48-year-old Acosta, currently the dean of Florida International University’s law school, to be his labor secretary. The smarts and pragmatism Acosta displayed in his legal career, his friends and allies say, will likely help pave the way for his Senate confirmation.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“He has had a tremendous career,” Trump said. “He will be a tremendous secretary of labor.”
Trump made the announcement from the White House East Room. Acosta could not be reached for comment Thursday, and his voice mail was full.
Trump’s initial choice to lead the Labor Department, fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, failed to gain enough support in the Republican-led Senate and withdrew his nomination Wednesday.
Things look more promising for Acosta. Miami lawyer Jeffrey Sloman, a Democrat who worked as Acosta’s first assistant in the U.S. attorney’s office from 2006-09, described him as a “brilliant and creative leader who I think will have broad support from both sides of the aisle.”
Acosta, who is Cuban American and Republican, would be the first and only Hispanic in Trump’s Cabinet, and the third Cuban-American Cabinet secretary in history, after Mel Martinez and Carlos Gutierrez. Acosta’s full name is Rene Alexander Acosta; he goes by Alex. He’s married to Jan, has two children and lives in Coral Gables.
Praise for Acosta’s nomination poured in from South Florida’s congressional delegation Thursday.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who dined privately with Trump on Wednesday night, called Acosta a “phenomenal choice.”
“I look forward to his confirmation hearing, where I’m confident he will impress my colleagues and secure the support necessary to be the next secretary of labor,” Rubio said in a statement.
Miami’s three Republican members in Congress — U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen — extolled Acosta’s experience and personality.
“He is a man of great principle, integrity, and courage, and I am confident he will do an excellent job serving our nation,” Diaz-Balart said in a statement released even before Trump formally nominated Acosta.
Acosta has already been confirmed by the Senate three times in his career but his record, in a bitterly divided Washington, will now be intensely scrutinized. His work as the Justice Department’s top civil-rights attorney in a 2004 Ohio voting rights case could be a likely target. It was raised by critics opposing him as a candidate for the law school dean at the University of Florida. His office also signed off on a controversial deal not to prosecute billionaire Palm Beach financier Jeffrey Epstein, who socialized with Trump, on sex trafficking charges.
Acosta, the only son of Cuban immigrants, graduated from Gulliver Preparatory School, Harvard College and Harvard Law School before clerking for Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. when Alito served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
During the Bush administration, Acosta served on the National Labor Relations Board and then rose through the Justice Department ranks. Acosta’s boss, Gonzales, appointed him as the interim U.S. attorney in South Florida in June 2005, and President Bush nominated him for the permanent post the following year.
Acosta’s South Florida office was known for prosecuting major drug trafficking, terrorism and fraud cases. Among notable convictions: al Qaida-trained terrorist Jose Padilla; super-GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff; Liberian torturer Chuckie Taylor Jr., and Colombian cocaine kingpins Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela.
His office also prosecuted hundreds of healthcare, banking and mortgage fraud offenders involved in billions of dollars of scams.
But Acosta’s office also had setbacks, losing the tax-evasion trial of Indy 500 champ Helio Castroneves and the narcotics case of Miami Beach physician Ali Shaygan. In the Shaygan trial, a government witness revealed that he had secretly recorded phone conversations with the doctor’s defense attorney — a violation that compelled a federal judge to impose $600,000 in sanctions against Acosta’s office, which were overturned on appeal.
In another sensitive case, Acosta’s office struggled with the prosecution of seven men dubbed the Liberty City Seven on charges of conspiring to provide “material support” to al Qaida. In the end, five were convicted after three trials, but two were acquitted.
Yet another controversial case: In 2008, Acosta’s office made a confidential deal not to charge Epstein, a wealthy Palm Beach investor, with operating what was described by authorities as an international sex ring that recruited nearly three dozen underage girls for his and others’ gratification. Instead, the case was handed to state prosecutors, who struck a plea deal with Epstein that put him in jail for only 13 months for soliciting minors for prostitution
A year later, Acosta left the U.S. attorney’s office to become FIU’s law dean at age 40. He has been credited with raising the profile of the young law school, which has led the state in bar passage in each of the past three years. He was hired for five years with an annual salary of $275,000 that was raised to $300,000 in 2014, when his appointment was extended for another five years, FIU records show. The labor secretary typically makes about $200,000 a year.
FIU President Mark Rosenberg called Acosta’s nomination “a pretty special day” for him and the university.
“I felt Alex has a destiny in public service,” Rosenberg told the Miami Herald. “ I’m not surprised by this at all. … He’s a person of integrity, conscientious, thoughtful — he doesn’t overreach. I’m very happy for him.”
In 2014, Acosta’s academic career seemed poised to ascend to another level: the deanship at the Levin College of Law at the University of Florida. He was said to be the favored candidate of then-UF President Bernie Machen.
But faculty became concerned about his candidacy and ultimately voted against including him on a shortlist of three contenders. Machen then ended the search — which cost the university $90,000 — without selecting a new dean.
Michelle Jacobs, a professor at the UF law school, said she and her colleagues were particularly worried about Acosta’s conduct during his time at the Justice Department’s civil-rights division. Acosta had taken the unusual step of writing a letter to an Ohio judge four days before the 2004 presidential election. The judge was hearing a voting-rights case on whether Republicans could challenge the credentials of 23,000 mostly African-American voters, according to published reports at the time.
In his letter, Acosta, then an assistant attorney general, told the judge that barring citizens from challenging voter credentials would “undermine” the enforcement of state and federal election laws. Acosta wrote that “nothing in the Voting Rights Act facially condemns challenge statutes.”
“His unsolicited filing had the appearance of putting political pressure on the judge in a suit between private parties,” Jacobs told the Herald. “We thought that was problematic.”
When Acosta came to campus to interview with faculty and students, Jacobs said she and other colleagues asked him about the Ohio case.
“His response was: ‘When you work for the Justice Department, you’re not representing your personal views, you’re representing the Justice Department and if you’re ordered to file a brief, you file a brief,’” Jacobs said.
That answer, she added, suggested Acosta “didn’t quite respect the ethical obligations of a lawyer in a way that we would have sought in a dean.”
She also noted that some students felt they didn’t have his full attention.
“While he was being interviewed by the students, he both took and made text messages,” Jacobs recalled. “That shows a degree of unawareness. The students did remark on that.”
‘Righting the ship’
Less well known about Acosta has been his tenure as chairman of troubled U.S. Century Bank — despite not having worked in the financial industry since a brief experience as a Lehman Brothers investment banker before law school.
Doral-based U.S. Century nearly went under during the recession because of bad loans. The bank received $50.2 million from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the largest taxpayer bailout for a bank in Florida. It has still not repaid $37.2 million to the government, according to a bailout scorecard compiled by ProPublica.
But since taking over in 2013, Acosta has led the bank — one of the largest Hispanic-owned banks in Florida — through a positive period that has seen it hit several important milestones.
In January, U.S. Century announced that in 2016 the bank turned its first year-end profit since 2008, a year after reporting annual losses of $5.8 million.
South Florida banking consultant Ken Thomas praised Acosta for “righting the ship” and called him a quiet and thoughtful leader who listens to subordinates and differing points of view.
Miami Herald staff writer David J. Neal contributed to this report.