Alex Acosta, the likely next U.S. labor secretary, groomed himself for greatness since his teen years at Gulliver Preparatory School, where he quoted passages from Latin texts, kept an extensive insect collection and graduated early to attend Harvard College.
He sped through a series of milestones: Harvard Law School graduate, member of the National Labor Relations Board, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, U.S. attorney in Miami and, most recently, dean of Florida International University’s law school.
Now, the 48-year-old Republican will be in the spotlight Wednesday as the Senate holds a hearing on the road to confirming him as President Donald Trump’s labor pick. Acosta, the only son of Cuban immigrants, would be the only Hispanic in Trump’s Cabinet.
The former Bush administration protégé is a relatively safe choice for labor after the debacle of Trump’s first pick, Andy Puzder, who dropped out last month after failing to secure enough support. But Acosta will still have to answer needling questions from Democrats about a pair of haunting and politically fraught judgment calls he made while serving as assistant attorney general in charge of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department between 2003 and 2005.
One dealt with an unsolicited letter Acosta wrote to a judge in which he sided with Republicans who challenged the voting rights of thousands of African Americans in Ohio on the eve of the 2004 presidential election — a questionable intervention that would dog Acosta later in his career.
The other involved a Justice Department inspector general’s report in 2008 that cited Acosta’s failure to supervise a senior GOP staff lawyer who illegally favored Republican political affiliation in the hiring of civil rights attorneys.
Taken together, the incidents amount to perhaps the most significant blemishes in Acosta’s otherwise impressive career.
“I don’t know how the Senate can ignore his record in the Civil Rights Division,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, who worked in the division from 2003 to 2006. “It’s virtually impossible that Mr. Acosta was unaware of what was happening on his watch.”
Puzder, a fast-food executive, withdrew his nomination after it became clear that a series of controversial revelations — including his ex-wife accusing him of physical abuse, despite a later retraction — had killed his chances of confirmation. Labor unions, which campaigned hard against Puzder, celebrated his withdrawal as a victory. By comparison, they quickly welcomed the Acosta pick.
Acosta, who’s been confirmed three times by the Senate in the past, also has the backing of both Florida senators, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson.
Acosta’s supporters, including colleagues who worked with him at the Civil Rights Division, described him as an ideal candidate for labor secretary, saying he is a whip-smart, fair-minded leader with a passion for public service.
Texas attorney Luis Reyes, who served as counselor to Acosta at the Justice Department, said Acosta pushed for the protection of voting and other civil rights while aggressively pursuing human-trafficking cases, especially those involving the exploitation of underage girls for prostitution.
“Ideologically, Alex was guided by a strong sense of fairness and justice,” Reyes said. “He would take into account a strict reading of the law and what his prosecutors would tell him and then make up his mind.”
“I think he’s willing to be independent,” said Virginia attorney Ondray Harris, who was deputy chief of the Employment Litigation Section during part of Acosta’s tenure as head of the civil rights office. “He has his critics and people praising him from both sides. I don’t see that as a negative; I see that as a positive.”
To this day, however, Acosta’s critics point to his decision to send a letter — just days before the November 2004 presidential election — to support Ohio’s Republican election officials who allowed challenges to the eligibility of some 23,000 voters at the polls in Cleveland. Republicans were accused of “vote caging:” sending mail to registered voters and compiling a list of those returned undelivered in an effort to purge them from voting rolls for allegedly not legally residing at those addresses.
Acosta said there was nothing wrong with the controversial tactic.
“In this regard, we observe that nothing in the Voting Rights Act facially condemns challenge statutes,” Acosta wrote the presiding Ohio judge — who had not requested any federal input.
Clarke, Acosta’s former colleague, called it “remarkable” for him to opine that vote caging did not violate federal law.
But Reyes, Acosta’s former counselor, defended him: “There is zero chance that when Alex wrote that letter he had any intention of voter intimidation.”
At the time, another troubling practice was unfolding in the Civil Rights Division under his helm that would later be detailed in the scathing 2008 report by the Justice Department’s inspector general. The report found that a senior official who worked under Acosta, and who oversaw the division’s hiring of career and entry-level attorneys, illegally favored conservative job applicants as “real Americans,” kept liberal lawyers off key cases and lied in Senate testimony to conceal his misconduct.
Bradley Schlozman, at the time a deputy assistant attorney general, privately called liberal department lawyers “commies” and “pinkos” and told a subordinate in an email that the Civil Rights Division shouldn’t be limited to hiring “politburo members” who belong to some “psychopathic left-wing organization designed to overthrow the government.”
The 70-page report — the last in a series of internal investigations stemming from the 2007 scandal of over politicization of the Justice Department — concluded that Schlozman kept tight control over hiring in five key sections of the Civil Rights Division and “improperly used political or ideological affiliations” in assessing applicants.
The division’s leaders during that era — Acosta and his successor, Wan Kim — were provided enough information by other staff attorneys to be alerted to Schlozman’s misconduct but “did not sufficiently supervise” him, the inspector general’s report said.
“In light of indications they had about Schlozman’s conduct and judgment, they failed to ensure that [his] hiring and personnel decisions were based on proper considerations,” the inspector general found.
The report noted that “while Acosta said he developed greater concerns about Schlozman’s management by the middle of 2005 … it was not until 2007, based on this same information, that Acosta expressed his concerns to anyone at the [Justice] Department.”
Reyes, the former counselor in the Civil Rights Division, said Acosta and other heads of the division traditionally delegated hiring to supervising attorneys just below them in the hierarchy. “These were individuals whose judgment he trusted for better or worse,” Reyes said. “It was an unfortunate situation, but he didn’t have any knowledge of it. … He didn’t play a role in it.”
By the time the scandal blew open, Acosta had returned to Miami, his hometown, to serve as the U.S attorney for the Southern District of Florida. He had been appointed as the interim U.S. attorney by the Justice Department in June 2005 and confirmed as President George W. Bush’s choice the following year. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, for whom Acosta had clerked a decade earlier when Alito was a judge on the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, participated in the swearing-in ceremony.
Acosta’s departure from Washington could not have been better timed because the Justice Department was engulfed in controversy over Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ firings of several U.S. attorneys — at the behest of the White House — who had refused to prosecute political enemies.
Acosta’s arrival in South Florida, despite his roots here, was met with suspicion by prosecutors because he had scant experience trying civil or criminal cases. He was seen as a conservative acolyte of Gonzales and his predecessor, John Ashcroft. But Acosta set out on a mission to meet with and win over dozens of colleagues in the U.S. attorney’s office and federal law enforcement.
His four-year tenure was notable for prosecuting major drug trafficking, terrorism and fraud cases: al Qaida-trained terrorist Jose Padilla; 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, including prominent Swiss bank UBS for establishing secret offshore bank accounts for U.S. clients to avoid paying federal income taxes.
Acosta’s first assistant, Jeffrey Sloman, said his former boss turned out to be a formidable presence in the U.S. attorney’s office by not only making his personal mark but also taking advantage of his connections in Washington.
“Alex had the best Rolodex I had ever seen,” said Sloman, who worked in the office for 20 years. “We were able to make major national and international cases in Miami because he fought to keep them here.”
On the local front, Acosta did not shy away from high-profile local public corruption cases, winning convictions of Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne and various Palm Beach County officials.
But Acosta’s office also had its setbacks, struggling in particular 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 Jeffrey Epstein, a wealthy Palm Beach investor, with operating what was described by authorities as an international sex ring that recruited some 40 underage girls for his and others’ gratification. Instead, Acosta deferred to state prosecutors, who struck a plea deal with Epstein that put him in jail for only 13 months for soliciting minors for prostitution — though he had to register as a sex offender in Florida and pay damages to the female victims under a provision demanded by Acosta.
A year later, Acosta left the U.S. attorney’s office to become FIU’s law school dean at age 40. He has been credited with raising the profile of the young law school, which has led the state in passage of the Bar exam in each of the past three years. He was hired for five years with an annual salary of $275,000, which was raised to $300,000 in 2014, when his appointment was extended for another five years, FIU records show.
In 2014, Acosta sought to use his success at FIU as a springboard to become the dean of the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law.
When he applied for the prestigious UF job, Acosta submitted a résumé that boasted of his success boosting FIU law school’s U.S. News & World Report ranking from below 150th to 105th and growing its all-important fund-raising totals from $400,000 a year to more than $1.5 million in 2012-13.
Although considered a frontrunner for the UF dean job, his past as head of the Civil Rights Division turned out be an insurmountable hurdle. Acosta’s stand in the Ohio voting rights case tripped him up with both UF’s law faculty and students, who questioned his commitment to diversity.
Written comments from faculty, students and staff who interviewed Acosta, obtained from the university through a public records request, show several instances in which interviewers anonymously mentioned Acosta’s letter in support of Ohio statutes on voter challenges.
“It concerns me that he was previously involved in voter suppression,” one comment read. “UF has made great strides this year in increasing minority enrollment. As a minority student, if I found out that the dean of a school I was thinking of attending had previously been involved in something like this, there is no way I would matriculate.”
“He came across more as a used car salesman rather than a viable dean candidate,” another person wrote. “Due to this involvement with voter caging I really question his motives. As a minority student I would feel concerned about the future of UF Law with Dean Acosta at the helm.”
“Although he is a Latino, his background and life experiences show that he has little understanding of the matters facing other minority groups,” a third comment read. “His record on civil rights does not make me optimistic that he can handle the issues that are likely to arise at UF, and I suspect that if he were appointed you would see a large exodus of faculty.”
Still, at least one other comment suggested that if Acosta were a poor fit to head UF’s law school, he continued to display the sort of political savvy that could help him as a Trump Cabinet secretary.
Acosta “is a politician at heart and knows how to work a crowd and how to recruit,” the interviewer wrote. “He is charming when he needs to be and very persuasive.”
Ultimately, the position of UF’s law school dean went unfilled.
The UF interview process was not the first time Acosta’s Justice Department experience plagued him in academia. Before he was hired as dean of FIU’s law school, Acosta faced internal opposition from H.T. Smith, an African-American lawyer and Democrat who directs the university’s trial advocacy program. He cited Acosta’s Civil Rights Division tenure.
“However, at the request of the University’s President, I met with Alex and spoke with him about my concerns,” Smith wrote after Acosta’s nomination for labor secretary in a published letter to the Miami Herald. “Quickly, I realized this was a man of high intellect and humble demeanor, who would listen to and work with people from diverse backgrounds and political persuasions.”