Alex Acosta (J. Albert Diaz)
Florida International University law dean R. Alexander Acosta was greeted Thursday as “a safer choice” for labor secretary in the Trump administration after the abrupt withdrawal of fast-food executive Andrew Puzder’s nomination.
Acosta, the only son of Cuban immigrants, is a Miami native son and a veteran Republican administrator, serving as assistant attorney general for civil rights and U.S. attorney in Miami.
At a news conference announcing his pick, Trump cited Acosta’s “tremendous career,” his degrees from Harvard Law School and Harvard College as well as his service as a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito when he served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Acosta “has been through four Senate confirmations. I’ve wished him the best. I think he’ll be a tremendous secretary of labor,” Trump said.
He will be Trump’s first Hispanic Cabinet nominee.
According to his FIU Law bio, Acosta has served in three presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed positions — as a member of the National Labor Relations Board appointed by George W. Bush, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the first Hispanic assistant attorney general, and U.S. attorney in Miami.
But Acosta’s record isn’t unblemished.
He was chastised in a 2009 report by the Justice Department’s inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility for failing to supervise a rogue administrator intent on politicizing the civil rights division by hiring archconservatives from 2003 to 2006, according to the Daily Business Review.
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement that she’s “astonished” by Acosta’s nomination. He “led the Civil Rights Division at a time that was marked by stark politicization and other improper hiring and personnel decisions that were fully laid to bare” in the report.
The OIG said: “Actions taken during Mr. Acosta’s tenure violated Justice Department policy and federal law. Political and ideological affiliations were used as a litmus test to evaluate job candidates and career attorneys, wreaking havoc on the work of the division.”
Clarke continued: “This egregious conduct played out under Mr. Acosta’s watch and undermined the integrity of the Civil Rights Division. It is hard to believe that Mr. Acosta would now be nominated to lead a federal agency tasked with promoting lawful hiring practices and safe workplaces.”
Acosta has been praised as a strong administrator who builds a loyal team. He is credited with helping push up FIU’s rankings and its law exam passage rate, with the public university hitting the top spot among the state’s 11 law schools for the third consecutive time last July.
Before heading back to law school, Acosta served as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida and was the longest serving U.S. attorney in the district since the 1970s.
The departures of Acosta and U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer, who resigned Wednesday, would mean the loss of Miami’s two highest-ranking Hispanics in public law circles.
The U.S. attorney’s position in Miami is a plum political post that has been filled by Hispanics for many years. In fact, Ferrer succeeded Acosta, who served from 2006 to 2009.
There’s no guarantee that track record of diversity will continue with the Southern District of Florida covering an area that includes Trump’s “Winter White House” in Palm Beach, where the president has his own circle of friends.
Acosta also serves as chairman of U.S. Century Bank, the largest domestically owned Hispanic community bank in Florida and one of the 15 largest Hispanic community banks in the nation.
Bank CEO and president Luis de la Aguilera issued a statement calling Acosta “a brilliant leader with an exemplary reputation.” Acosta “was instrumental in assembling a new board and securing a recapitalization deal, which helped the bank stay afloat and begin its turnaround,” de la Aguilera said.
Acosta took over as bank chairman in 2013 and brought in a new executive team in 2015, which paved the way for the lifting of a five-year consent decree by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. last April.
He also has served as chairman of the board of trustees of Gulliver Schools and twice was named one of the nation’s 50 most influential Hispanics by Hispanic Business Magazine.
Acosta’s early work in Washington included time at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, where he specialized in employment and labor issues, as well as teaching classes on employment law, disability-based discrimination law and civil rights law at the George Mason University School of Law.
Harvard law dean Martha Minow sent her congratulations to the alum and said he “has spent his career in public service, legal work and education. His work at the Civil Rights Division, the NLRB, private practice, and legal education provide outstanding experience for the Department of Labor. Experts admire his deep knowledge of labor and employment, sense of ethics, commitment to law and devotion to giving back to his community.”
Acosta “seems to be a safer choice by the administration and someone who has more traditional conservative political experience,” said Tom Clark, of counsel with The Wagner Law Group. However, “his positions on the hot-button issues remain to be seen.”
Steve Saxon, chairman of Groom Law Group, agreed that Acosta seems like a “very safe” pick, noting, however, that it “doesn’t look like he knows a lot about retirement or health benefits.”
Puzder faced increasing criticism as well as opposition from GOP senators, with up to 12 saying a day before Puzder was to appear for his scheduled nomination hearing Thursday before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that they’d vote against him.
Former Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, who’s now running for chair of the Democratic National Committee, called Puzder “unfit” to serve as the next labor secretary in an interview on CNN.