President Trump has nominated longtime Republican attorney Alex Acosta to head the Department of Labor, after his initial choice Andy Puzder withdrew in the face of withering criticism late Wednesday.
It remains to be seen if Democrats will find Acosta as objectionable as Puzder, a fast food CEO who embodied almost every policy idea and character trait the party has fought against in recent years. But if Acosta’s nomination does become a flashpoint, it would not be the first time his candidacy for a job drew critics out of the woodwork.
The black marks on Acosta’s resume have cost him at least one job he coveted, and cast a significant shadow over his current role as head of Florida International University’s law school.
Connections to Bush-era civil rights sabotage
Acosta, 48, was already “a young superstar of conservative legal circles” back in 2006 when George W. Bush made him the top federal prosecutor in Miami. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito even showed up for Acosta’s swearing-in as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, in recognition of a friendship dating back to Acosta’s time as a clerk for the conservative judge in the 1990s.
Before taking the top prosecutor job in south Florida, Acosta served the second Bush administration in other capacities. Acosta was a member of the National Labor Relations Board from December 2002 to August 2003 — and was confirmed to the post rather than recess-appointed like most of President Bush’s NLRB picks.
The board issued 251 decisions in Acosta’s 8-month run, including 27 published on his final day in the post. Acosta authored 125 of those opinions himself, according to a bio on the website of Florida International University’s law school, where he is currently dean.
But Acosta’s other work for the Bush team may, oddly, prove more significant during his confirmation hearings than his NLRB stint.
Acosta held multiple senior positions in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division (CRD) under Bush, including a stint as that division’s leader from 2003 to 2005. That means Acosta was a senior agency official during a key — and dark — period for the CRD.
While there, Acost oversaw another senior official named Bradley Schlozman, who used his hiring authority to slant the makeup of the DOJ’s civil rights staff. Schlozman hired conservative lawyers hostile to the CRD’s mission, purging the agency of people who believed in the work it exists to do. Schlozman’s ploy did long-lasting damage to federal work on voting rights violations, police abuse, and other assaults on Americans’ rights.
Acosta has denied direct knowledge of what Schlozman was doing. But another DOJ staffer from that period, Shanetta Cutlar, “told us she complained directly to Acosta” about Schlozman’s hiring practices, the department’s Inspector General found in a report on the Bush-era sabotage of the CRD.
Acosta himself told investigators “he became more concerned about Schlozman’s judgment…as a result of discussions Acosta had with retiring Voting Section Chief Joseph Rich about Schlozman’s management. Yet, Acosta took no action to alert those in his chain of command,” the report found. Acosta left the CRD in 2005, and did not report his suspicions about Schlozman’s misconduct until “early 2007,” by which time the U.S. Attorneys scandal had already begun to make headlines.
Voter suppression in Ohio during 2004 election?
While Acosta can argue he was not directly responsible for the ideological purge that Schlozman executed on his watch, he cannot wash his hands of the other moment that liberal observers criticize from his DOJ years.
With the 2004 election predicted to be excruciatingly close, and Republican elections officials in multiple states accused of seeking to suppress voter turnout among black, Hispanic, and urban voters, Acosta was a key figure in the Bush team’s final push to win Ohio.
Republicans there were using a dubious tactic known as “vote caging” to try to purge the rolls of some 23,000 voters, most of them black. Democrats went to court to reinstate the names. But four days before Election Day, Acosta — then a DOJ official — sent a letter to the judge in the case advising him to side with the Republican attorneys in the case.
Acosta’s office was not a party to the Ohio case and the judge had not asked for federal input. Robert Kengle, who served under Acosta at DOJ, accused him of “cheerleading for the Republican defendants” and called it “outrageous.” The letter in favor of “caging” tactics to suppress voter turnout corresponds with the ideological obsession with voter fraud conspiracy theories which Acosta’s then-colleague Hans von Spakovksy had injected into Bush’s DOJ — and for which President Trump is himself notorious.
Another controversial Trump figure
Trump has therefore picked someone to run his Department of Labor who is tainted by the last Republican administration’s willful attempts to undermine civil rights protections and promote lies about voter fraud.
Acosta’s association with the Bush administration’s racially motivated DOJ actions was enough to prompt some black members of FIU’s law school faculty to publicly criticize their school for hiring him as dean back in 2009. And five years later, when he was a finalist in the more prestigious University of Florida’s search for a new law school head, dozens of faculty objected, citing Acosta’s role in the Ohio voting challenges case in the closing days of the 2004 election.
Yet it is unlikely that Acosta’s history will create the same kind of purchase with Senate Republicans as Puzder’s many negative news cycles did. Acosta’s past stains are more in line with those of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who no Republican even criticized let alone threatened to vote against.
But Acosta’s bio will likely reinforce the broader theme of Trump’s team leaning into hard-right ideologues whose closet skeletons all seem to involve the rights of racial minorities — even, in this case, with Trump’s first Latino cabinet pick.