New Labor Nominee: Fair Leader or Self-Serving One?
In 2008, three years after R. Alexander Acosta had decamped from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division for the United States attorney’s post in South Florida, the Justice Department’s in-house investigator laid out a damning conclusion: Under Acosta’s watch, his office had repeatedly violated federal law and department policies by weighing political affiliations in hiring and assessing civil rights employees.
The inspector general laid most of the blame on a subordinate of Acosta’s, Bradley Schlozman, but the investigation concluded that Acosta had ignored warning signs about hiring practices.
To William Yeomans, who spent 26 years working at the Justice Department and now teaches constitutional law and civil rights at American University, Acosta got “a little bit of a pass.”
“There was a coordinated, political effort to drive out career attorneys, people who had been there for many years, and replace them with conservative ideologues,” said Yeomans, who worked for Senator Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, and is active in liberal legal circles. “Acosta certainly knew what was going on.”
Now Acosta has been nominated for a new post, secretary of labor, that would task him with creating and enforcing policies to ensure the safety and fair treatment of workers across the country, and the old demons of the George W. Bush era may loom large as he goes before the Senate labor committee this month for his first confirmation hearing.
Acosta, 48, did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this article.
But in dozens of interviews, current and former colleagues of Acosta, who is now dean of Florida International University’s law school, are deeply split in their ament of the nominee. Some described him as a hands-off leader who has often chosen not to inject himself into disputes, sometimes tolerating a discriminatory environment if inaction has served his interests.
Others, including an immigration advocate and several professors at Florida International University’s law school, say Acosta is a fair leader who did not let his conservative ideals affect his decisions for the school and who worked hard to recruit, retain and support a diverse student group.
Erik Camayd-Freixas, a Hispanic studies professor at Florida International University, met Acosta several months before he was tapped to join the university’s law school, in 2009. Acosta was then the United States attorney for the Southern District of Florida, where his office prosecuted the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the terrorism suspect Jose Padilla and founders of the Cali drug cartel.
Camayd-Freixas and several others called on the prosecutor’s office to investigate an immigration raid in Homestead, Florida, where, they claimed, United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents had unfairly roughed people up.
“I was very impressed with the way he handled it and his fairness in presenting essentially abuses by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the Department of Justice for investigation,” Camayd-Freixas said of Acosta. “He put together a complaint, and he elevated it.”
But Yeomans also recalled an example of what he described as Acosta’s propensity for cutting corners. While Acosta was transitioning into the prestigious post of assistant attorney general for civil rights, he told Yeomans, then a career Justice Department attorney, that he planned to a hire a Republican lawyer, whom he knew through political connections and who most likely would not have qualified for the job, because the lawyer was sick and needed benefits. The hiring disturbed Yeomans, but Acosta saw the gesture as a much-needed gift for a man who needed health insurance.
“It shows a disregard for being a good steward of the taxpayers’ dollars,” Yeomans said. “It suggests he would be unlikely to stand up if the Trump administration told him to do things that should not be done.”
Around that time, Acosta drafted a 2004 letter to a federal judge in Ohio, seemingly dismissing the significance of “vote caging” in the presidential election. Democrats saw the practice, in which private citizens challenge the eligibility of African-American and other voters, as an intentional Republican strategy to disenfranchise minorities.
But Acosta, from his office in the Civil Rights Division, wrote that under the Help America Vote Act of 2002 — passed after the disastrous 2000 Florida recount to help states modernize voting — any challenge to a voter’s eligibility would be offset by that voter’s right to cast a provisional ballot.
“HAVA’s provisional ballot requirement is relevant to the balance between ballot access and ballot integrity,” he said in the letter. “Challenge statutes, such as those at issue in Ohio, are part of this balance.”
To Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, who also worked under Acosta at the Justice Department, that letter is a red flag.
“He was someone who ignored problems, allowing them to fester on his watch,” she said. “When you look back at that time period, some of the worst problems happened when Acosta was the one running the place.”
Acosta’s confirmation process starts this month under something of a cloud. President Trump’s first choice for labor secretary, the fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, withdrew his nomination with his business record under attack. Conservatives had zeroed in on Puzder’s employment of an undocumented immigrant as his housekeeper and on spousal abuse accusations.
Labor groups that assailed Puzder have generally applauded the choice of Acosta. A Miami native, Acosta earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard University and his law degree from Harvard Law School. He also served as a law clerk to Justice Samuel Alito Jr. of the Supreme Court when Justice Alito was a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
From 2002 to 2003, Acosta served on the National Labor Relations Board for President Bush.
Tawia Baidoe Ansah, the Florida International law school’s associate dean for academic affairs, and Ediberto Román, a law professor and director of the school’s citizenship and nationality initiatives, praised Acosta’s focus on recruiting the best students to the school, hiring faculty members to help increase the school’s bar passage rate and networking around the state to help students find jobs after graduation.
As a gay black man, Ansah said he thought that Acosta understood the importance of diversity. A conversation the two had after five police officers were killed in Dallas last year showed that Acosta could empathize with both sides of the contentious issue of policing, he said.
“I remember Alex saying the Dallas incident is a tragedy indeed, but it is going to be politicized and you have got to remember that police killings of the black innocent men in America are also really tragic,” Ansah said.
But as with every issue in academia, not everyone was so supportive. Some professors and students said Acosta did not focus enough on teaching students about race and the law. Glaister Brown, a lawyer in Miramar, Florida, and a former student at Florida International, met with Acosta in 2013 to make the case that while the school’s brochures highlighted diversity, its curriculum did not.
“He acknowledged that there was some truth to what I was saying,” Brown said, “but he never said, ‘This is important to me or to the school.’ He tried to say that if professors want to teach about race and the law they can. But he wasn’t going to make it a requirement or put any special emphasis on it.”
On smaller issues, Acosta showed a personal touch. Alex Bistritz, 27, a first-year law student, said Acosta had tea with him for an hour to persuade him to go to school and often stopped in the hallways to ask him how he was doing. Another student, Alexandra Mullenax, 24, said Acosta personally called her after she had problems moving into an apartment the school had recommended.
H. T. Smith, a trial advocacy professor at Florida International University’s law school, spoke out publicly against Acosta initially, citing political problems during Mr. Acosta’s tenure at the Justice Department. Since then, he has come to see him as fair but not particularly strong-willed after the school’s dynamo of a first dean, Leonard Strickman.
Strickman “was a star around the country in terms of law school deans,” Smith said. “Acosta is not like that.”
NY Times 3/12