WASHINGTON ― In 2014, R. Alexander Acosta, President Donald Trump’s second pick for U.S. secretary of labor, became a top candidate to lead the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law. But after the interview process began, faculty at the school rejected the former U.S. attorney and assistant attorney general under President George W. Bush, citing ethical concerns and questions about his ties to Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), a tea party favorite who has railed against what he calls “liberal academic theorists.”
“We had a number of concerns to start off with,” Michelle Jacobs, a distinguished professor of law at the school who helped lead the inquiry, told The Huffington Post. “In the end, we weren’t comfortable with him.”
If confirmed, Acosta would lead more than 17,000 employees as secretary of labor, a position meant to protect the rights of American workers. The Labor Department was established in 1913 ― two years after the infamous fire at New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory left 146 people dead ― following decades of bloody clashes between workers and industry barons. As secretary, Acosta would be tasked with improving wages, benefits and working conditions for U.S. workers, and administering more than 180 federal laws and thousands of regulations.
But his record during the Bush administration raises major questions about Acosta’s ability to oversee the proper enforcement of labor laws and regulations. Acosta’s name pops up frequently in a Justice Department Inspector General report focused on hiring practices in the Civil Rights Division, which Acosta headed from August 2003 to June 2005.
During the Bush administration, the Civil Rights Division’s work was deeply politicized, and there was a mass exodus of career employees. An Obama transition team report said the Civil Rights Division had been “demoralized and damaged” by “oppressive” political appointees who were “hostile” to civil rights enforcement.
When Acosta headed up the Civil Rights Division, a man named Bradley Schlozman was put in charge of the hiring process. Just before Acosta took over the division, Schlozman sent an email to a former colleague referring to Voting Section lawyers as “mold spores” and “crazy libs” whom he hoped to “gerrymander” out of the section. During Acosta’s tenure, Schlozman sent an email to another Acosta deputy that mentioned an interview with “some lefty who we’ll never hire” and questioned whether applicants were conservatives. “As long as I’m here, adherents of Mao’s little red book need not apply,” Schlozman wrote in another email sent during Acosta’s tenure.
As a U.S. attorney, you have an ethical obligation to assess what you’re doing ethically. Michelle Jacobs, professor at the University of Florida's Levin College of Law
The IG report, which wasn’t made public until 2009, says Acosta claimed he “was not aware that Schlozman acted inappropriately in the hiring process” and that “no one complained to him that inappropriate hiring practices were taking place.” But the IG concluded that Acosta “had sufficient information about Schlozman’s conduct to have raised red flags warranting closer supervision of him,” and that Acosta “did not sufficiently supervise Schlozman.”
Acosta claimed he didn’t recall the chief of the Special Litigation Section of the Justice Department complaining about one of Schlozman’s hires, whom she considered unqualified for even a line attorney position. Acosta only said he’d known of some of issues with Schlozman’s management and his tendency to make inappropriate jokes, including him passing along a racial joke about a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. (A Division employee had written that he liked his coffee “Mary Frances Berry style ― black and bitter.”)
While Acosta said he became more concerned about Schlozman’s judgement in mid-2005, as he prepared to leave, he “took no action to alert those in his chain of command,” the report said.
Bill Yeomans, who spent 26 years at the Civil Rights Division and left just before the end of Acosta’s tenure, said he believes the IG report “really gave [Acosta] a pass when it shouldn’t have,” given that he was overseeing the people making improper hiring decisions.
Acosta “was the boss. He was the guy who was overseeing this whole operation,” Yeomans said. Acosta left the Civil Rights Division to become a U.S. attorney just as things were “starting to get ugly,” said Yeomans. “His escape was timely.”
Yeomans called Acosta a “very shrewd guy,” and said he expected that when Acosta left the Civil Rights Division, he was thinking ahead to avoid trouble.
“He’s a very ambitious guy who is willing to be as flexible in his positions as the situation demands,” Yeomans said. “That initially sounds like a good thing, but I think it’s probably not, because he’s very attuned to serving people above him.”
“I’m sure he knew that what Schlozman was doing was radioactive, and so he stayed as far away from it as he could on paper, while I’m sure still being very much in the loop about what was happening,” Yeomans said. “He was the guy presiding over the Civil Rights Division during the period when most of the conduct in the report occurred. The report blames most of it on Brad Schlozman, but Brad Schlozman was Alex’s deputy. Alex knew what was going on.”
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement that she was “astonished” by Acosta’s nomination.
“Mr. Acosta 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 a 2008 report issued by the Office of Inspector General,” Clarke said. “The OIG found that 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.”
“This egregious conduct played out under Mr. Acosta’s watch and undermined the integrity of the Civil Rights Division,” she went on. “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.”
“It’s got to raise serious concerns, I hope,” Yeomans said. “We have a guy who presided over what was the biggest politicization of federal bureaucracy probably in history, but certainly during that era. It was a horrible instance of abuse of federal bureaucracy. To think that’s the guy who is going to run labor policy for the entire country, that’s of great concern.”
Acosta and the White House did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Trump named Acosta, currently dean of the Florida International University College of Law, to lead the Department of Labor after Andrew Puzder, Trump’s first choice, withdrew himself from consideration. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions had delayed a review of Puzder’s labyrinthine business conflicts, his history of labor violations and hiring undocumented workers, and accusations that he’d physically abused his ex-wife. Puzder, the former chief executive of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, opposed the minimum wage and had suggested his workers should be replaced with robots.
Acosta served for nine months on the National Labor Relations Board. His tenure, from December 2002 to August 2003, marked a relatively stable period for an agency that, four years later, would be beset by partisan infighting over new rules to restrict unions.
In 2004, Acosta, then an assistant attorney general, wrote a letter to an Ohio judge defending Republicans’ right to challenge voter credentials. The move was unusual. The judge, presiding over a state-level lawsuit between the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee, hadn’t solicited the opinion.
“Acosta has certainly been part of the movement to restrict voting rights,” Ari Berman, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, told HuffPost, saying there had been “a lot of problems” with the Justice Department during Acosta’s tenure. “Between backing Ohio’s voter purge in 2004 and having lawyers under him in the Justice Department who very clearly wanted to restrict voting rights, his record on that is pretty troubling.”
(A separate IG report said that Acosta “took a particular interest in the language-minority provisions” of the Voting Rights Act, which Yeomans said was part of Acosta’s strategy to strengthen the Latino vote for Republicans.)
When Jacobs, the Levin College professor who helped interview Acosta in 2014, asked him about the 2004 letter to the Ohio judge, she said he insisted he was just following orders from higher up in the Justice Department.
“That was one thing we questioned him about, and we really weren’t satisfied,” she said. “He said, when you work at a bigger entity you do what your supervisor tells you to do. But as a U.S. attorney, you have an ethical obligation to assess what you’re doing ethically.”