Alexander Acosta

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Alexander Acosta
File:Alexander Acosta official portrait.jpg
27th United States Secretary of Labor
In office
April 28, 2017 – July 12, 2019
President Donald Trump
Deputy Patrick Pizzella
Preceded by Tom Perez
Dean of the Florida International University College of Law
In office
July 1, 2009 – April 28, 2017
Preceded by Leonard Strickman
Succeeded by Antony Page
United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida
In office
June 11, 2005 – June 5, 2009
President George W. Bush
Barack Obama
Preceded by Marcos Jiménez
Succeeded by Wifredo A. Ferrer
United States Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division
In office
August 22, 2003 – June 11, 2005
President George W. Bush
Preceded by Bradley Schlozman (acting)
Succeeded by Wan J. Kim
Member of the National Labor Relations Board
In office
December 17, 2002 – August 21, 2003
President George W. Bush
Preceded by William Cowen
Succeeded by Ronald Meisburg
Personal details
Born Rene Alexander Acosta
(1969-01-16) January 16, 1969 (age 51)
Miami, Florida, U.S.
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Jan Williams
Education Harvard University (BA, JD)
Website Government website

Rene Alexander Acosta (born January 16, 1969)[1] is an American attorney, academic and politician who served as the 27th United States Secretary of Labor from 2017 until his resignation in 2019.[2][3] President Donald Trump nominated Acosta to be Labor Secretary on February 16, 2017, and he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on April 27, 2017. Acosta is the only Hispanic person to have served in President Trump's Cabinet.[4][5][6][7]

A member of the Republican Party, he was appointed by President George W. Bush to the National Labor Relations Board and later served as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. He is the former dean of Florida International University College of Law.

In 2007–2008, as U.S. Attorney, Acosta approved a plea deal that required Jeffrey Epstein to plead guilty to state charges of prostitution against one 14-year-old girl, register as a sex offender and pay restitution to victims as part of a federal non-prosecution agreement. The prosecutors had identified 36 victims of Epstein, most of them having no prior knowledge of the agreement and no opportunity to give input. The deal has been the subject of criticism by the Miami Herald and others.

Background

Acosta is the only son of Cuban refugees.[8][9] He is a native of Miami, Florida, where he attended the Gulliver Schools. Acosta received a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics from Harvard College in 1990 and received a Juris Doctor degree cum laude from Harvard Law School 1994.[10] He is the first member of his family to graduate from college.[9]

Following law school, Acosta served as a law clerk to Samuel Alito, then a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, from 1994 to 1995.[11] Acosta then worked at the Washington, D.C., office of the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, where he specialized in employment and labor issues.[12] While in Washington, Acosta taught classes on employment law, disability-based discrimination law, and civil rights law at the George Mason University School of Law.[13]

On December 31, 2013, Acosta became the new chairman of U.S. Century Bank,[14] the largest domestically owned Hispanic community bank in Florida and one of the 15 largest Hispanic community banks in the nation. During his tenure as chairman, U.S. Century Bank had its first year-end profit since the start of the Great Recession.[8] Acosta was a member of the Board of Trustees of Gulliver Schools, where he served a past term as board chairman.[15]

Bush Administration

File:Alex Acosta as Assistant Attorney General.jpg
Acosta as Assistant Attorney General

Acosta served in four presidentially appointed, U.S. Senate-confirmed positions in the George W. Bush Administration. From December 2001 to December 2002, he served as Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.[16] From December 2002 to August 2003, he was a member of the National Labor Relations Board for which he participated in or authored more than 125 opinions.[17]

Then, he became Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division on August 22, 2003,[18] where he was known for increasing federal prosecutions against human trafficking.[19] Acosta authorized federal intervention in an Oklahoma religious liberties case to help assure the right to wear hijab in public school,[20] and worked with Mississippi authorities to reopen the investigation of the 1955 death of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youth whose abduction and killing helped spark the civil rights movement.[21][22] He was the first Hispanic to serve as Assistant Attorney General.[23]

While leading the Civil Rights division, Acosta allowed his predecessor, Bradley Schlozman, to continue to make decisions on hiring.[24] A report by the Inspector General and the Office of Professional Responsibility later found that Schlozman illegally gave preferential treatment to conservatives and made false statements to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Those findings were relayed to the office of the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia,[16] but Schlozman was not prosecuted.[24] While it put the primary responsibility on Schlozman, the report also concluded that Acosta "did not sufficiently supervise Schlozman" and that "in light of indications [he and Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Sheldon Bradshaw] had about Schlozman's conduct and judgment, they failed to ensure that Schlozman's hiring and personnel decisions were based on proper considerations."[16][24]

U.S. Attorney for Southern District of Florida

File:Alexander Acosta.jpg
Acosta during his tenure as U.S. Attorney

In 2005, Acosta was appointed as the U.S. Attorney for Southern District of Florida, where his office successfully prosecuted the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the terrorism suspect José Padilla, the founders of the Cali Cartel, and Charles McArther Emmanuel, the son of Liberia's former leader.[16][25]

The District also targeted white collar crime, prosecuting several bank-related cases, including one against Swiss bank UBS. The case resulted in UBS paying $780 million in fines, and for the first time in history, the bank provided the United States with the names of individuals who were using secret Swiss bank accounts to avoid U.S. federal income taxes.[26]

Other notable cases during his tenure include the corruption prosecution of Palm Beach County Commission Chairman Tony Masilotti, Palm Beach County Commissioner Warren Newell, Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary McCarty,[27] and Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne; the conviction of Cali Cartel founders Miguel and Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, for the importation of 200,000 kilos of cocaine, which resulted in a $2.1 billion forfeiture; and the white-collar crime prosecutions of executives connected to Hamilton Bank.[28]

Acosta also emphasized health care fraud prosecutions. Under Acosta's leadership the District prosecuted more than 700 individuals, responsible for a total of more than $2 billion in Medicare fraud.[29]

Prosecution of Jeffrey Epstein

In 2007-2008, while serving as the U.S. Attorney for Southern Florida, Acosta approved a federal non-prosecution agreement [30] with Jeffrey Epstein, which has since been a subject of ongoing controversy. Epstein, a wealthy hedge fund manager with influential connections, including Prince Andrew, Tom Barrack, Leon Black, Bill Clinton, Alan Dershowitz, Wilbur Ross, and Donald Trump, among others, was believed to have recruited minor girls for lewd massages and other paid sexual activities at his Florida mansion.[31][32] Under the agreement, Epstein, along with four co-conspirators and any unnamed “potential co-conspirators,” did not face federal criminal charges.[30] The agreement required Epstein to plead guilty to two state prostitution charges, serve jail time, register as a sex offender, and pay restitution to victims identified by the FBI.[30] Prosecutors had identified 36 victims of Epstein, most of whom had no knowledge of the plea deal or opportunity to give input.[31]

The federal agreement with Epstein was not a typical criminal law plea bargain, but instead employed a structure commonly used in regulatory settlements with companies.[30] The approach has been described by a member of the prosecution team as a method to address the state of Florida's prior decision not to bring felony charges against Epstein for the same activities.[33]

Acosta has variously stated that he was not directly involved in the unusual agreement, that prosecutors determined it to be the best available solution, and that he "was unduly pressured by Epstein’s heavy-hitting lawyers." He also has argued the prosecution team believed conviction by trial in federal court was unlikely and an agreement would therefore be the best way to put an end to Epstein's exploitation of underage girls.[34][35][36]

The federal agreement, and Epstein's subsequent lenient treatment while incarcerated by the state of Florida, have been the subject of criticism, with one reporter calling the agreement “the deal of a lifetime.”[31] A key issue has been Acosta's agreement with Epstein's lawyers not to inform victims of the arrangement during negotiations (see CVRA lawsuit discussion below). In a 2011 public letter about the case, Acosta expressed dissatisfaction with the terms of Epstein's incarceration by Florida, stating: “Epstein appears to have received highly unusual treatment while in jail.” [34][37] The fact that the agreement with Epstein also protected unnamed "potential co-conspirators" from federal prosecution has drawn speculation that perhaps the deal was intended to protect influential people in Epstein's orbit.[31] However, others have described that clause as intended to protect those of Epstein's victims who had been enticed to help him recruit other victims for abuse.[38]

Subsequent to the federal non-prosecution agreement of 2007-2008, claims were made in news reports, books,[38][39] and civil lawsuits that Epstein's activities prior to his 2008 conviction may have been significantly more extensive than those known at the time of the agreement – perhaps affecting hundreds of minors, said to have been recruited from the U.S. and overseas to attend sex parties and perform sexual favors for Epstein and his guests at Epstein's homes in Florida, New York, New Mexico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and aboard his private jet. None of the civil lawsuits related to these additional claims have gone to trial.

In late 2018, as rumors circulated that Acosta was being considered as a possible successor to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Miami Herald published an investigation detailing Acosta's role in the Epstein case. Among other revelations, the Herald reported that Acosta took the unusual step of meeting with an attorney for Epstein outside the U.S. Attorney's office and that it was he who finalized the agreement. According to the article: "In email after email, Acosta and the lead federal prosecutor, A. Marie Villafaña, acquiesced to Epstein’s legal team’s demands, which often focused on ways to limit the scandal by shutting out his victims and the media, including suggesting that the charges be filed in Miami, instead of Palm Beach, where Epstein’s victims lived." [40]

A key issue was that prosecutors agreed not to inform victims that the deal was in the works. The Herald describes an email from Epstein's attorney after his off-site meeting with Acosta: "'Thank you for the commitment you made to me during our Oct. 12 meeting,' Lefkowitz wrote in a letter to Acosta after their breakfast meeting in West Palm Beach. He added that he was hopeful that Acosta would abide by a promise to keep the deal confidential. 'You ... assured me that your office would not ... contact any of the identified individuals, potential witnesses or potential civil claimants and the respective counsel in this matter,’ Lefkowitz wrote." The Herald article contended that certain aspects of Acosta's non-prosecution agreement violated federal law. "As part of the arrangement, Acosta agreed, despite a federal law to the contrary, that the deal would be kept from the victims. As a result, the non-prosecution agreement was sealed until after it was approved by the judge, thereby averting any chance that the girls — or anyone else — might show up in court and try to derail it." Victims, former prosecutors and the retired Palm Beach police chief were among those quoted criticizing the agreement and Acosta's role in it.[31]

Following the Herald investigation and related news coverage, members of Congress submitted a formal request to the U.S. Department of Justice for review of Acosta's role in the Epstein deal,[41] and several editorials called for Acosta's resignation or termination from his then-current position as U.S. Labor Secretary.[42][43]

David Markus, a Florida defense attorney familiar with Acosta's work as U.S. Attorney for Southern District of Florida supported Acosta, stating: “[T]here are many — including the New York Times, Miami Herald, and others — who are calling for Congress to investigate Acosta and force him out, equating Acosta’s approval of the deal to Epstein’s actions. Although it is fair to have an honest disagreement about the Epstein plea agreement, the attacks on Acosta are not justified. ... At the time this case was being investigated, there were serious questions about whether Epstein’s crimes had the required federal nexus. These were traditional state court crimes with local victims, which the federal government decided should be prosecuted by the state system. ... In addition, there were legitimate concerns about how a trial would have turned out. These trials are difficult.”[44]

Jeffrey Sloman, one of the prosecutors in the case, justified the agreement in writing: “Our priorities were to make sure Epstein could not hurt anyone else and to compensate Epstein’s victims without retraumatizing them. Our team worked diligently to build a federal case against Epstein. Throughout the investigation, we took care to be respectful of the pain Epstein’s victims had endured. As we continued, however, it became clear that most of Epstein’s victims were terrified to cooperate against him. Some hired lawyers to avoid appearing before a grand jury. One of the key witnesses moved to Australia and refused to return calls from us. We also researched and discussed significant legal impediments to prosecuting [in federal court] what was, at heart, a local sex abuse case. Given the obstacles we faced in fashioning a robust federal prosecution, we decided to negotiate a resolution. ... You can disagree with the result we reached, but our whole team — from Alex [Acosta] on down the chain of command — always acted with integrity and in good faith.” [33]

In December 2018, a Labor Department spokesperson replied to questions about renewed interest in the Epstein case as follows: "For more than a decade, this prosecution has been reviewed in great detail by newspaper articles, television reports, books, and Congressional testimony, and has been defended by the Department of Justice in litigation across three administrations and several attorneys general. If the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General chooses to review this matter, Secretary Acosta welcomes the opportunity to participate."[45]

In February 2019, the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility notified Senator Ben Sasse that it had opened an investigation into Epstein's prosecution.[46][47]

On February 21, 2019, a ruling in federal court returned Acosta's role in the Epstein case to the headlines.[48][49][50][51] A key criticism of the Epstein case was that the federal deal with Epstein had been kept secret until after it was finalized, a practice that had been common prior to passage of the Crime Victims' Rights Act of 2004 (CVRA), which requires notifying victims of the progress of federal criminal cases. The CVRA was new and relatively untested at the time of the Epstein non-prosecution agreement. In 2008, two of Epstein's victims filed a lawsuit in federal court aiming to vacate the federal non-prosecution agreement on the grounds that it violated the CVRA.[31] For more than a decade, the U.S. Attorney's office denied that it acted in violation of victims' rights laws and argued that the CVRA did not apply in the Epstein case.[52] The government's contention that the CVRA did not apply was based on questions of timing (whether or not CVRA applied prior to filing of federal charges), relevance (whether the CVRA applied to non-prosecution agreements), and jurisdiction (whether the case should be considered a federal case or a state case under the CVRA). The court rejected those arguments in the February 21, 2019, ruling, finding that the CVRA did apply and that victims should have been notified of the Epstein non-prosecution agreement in advance of its signing, to afford them the opportunity to influence its terms. At the conclusion of his ruling, the federal judge in the case noted that he was “not ruling that the decision not to prosecute was improper,” but was “simply ruling that, under the facts of this case, there was a violation of the victims rights [for reasonable, accurate, and timely notice] under the CVRA.”[53]

Because the CVRA does not specify penalties for failure to meet victims notification requirements, the judge offered both parties opportunities to suggest remedies—Epstein's victims who were party to the suit asked for rescission of the federal non-prosecution agreement with Epstein, while the government suggested other approaches, maintaining that other victims were against rescinding the agreement due to privacy concerns and possible impacts to restitution paid under the agreement.[54]

On July 6, 2019, Epstein was arrested by the FBI-NYPD Crimes Against Children Task Force on sex trafficking charges stemming from activities alleged to have occurred in 2002–2005.[55] Initial reports were unclear as to whether the 2007–2008 federal non-prosecution agreement with Epstein had been rescinded prior to the arrest.

Dean of the Florida International University College of Law

On July 1, 2009, Acosta became the second dean of Florida International University College of Law.[56] He spearheaded the effort to establish the Master of Studies in Law in banking compliance, Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money-laundering at FIU Law.[23]

Secretary of Labor

Nomination and confirmation

File:DOL Secretary Alexander Acosta swearing in April 28, 2017.jpg
Acosta being sworn in as the Secretary of Labor by Vice President Mike Pence, on April 28, 2017

President Donald Trump announced in a press conference on February 16, 2017, that he would nominate Acosta to fill the position of United States Secretary of Labor after the nomination of Andrew Puzder was withdrawn.[57][58][59][60][61] Acosta was recommended by White House Counsel Don McGahn.[62] Acosta is the first, and – as of May 2019 – the only Hispanic person to serve in Trump's cabinet.[4][5][6][7] Jovita Carranza was nominated to Trump's cabinet on April 4, 2019, but not yet confirmed, to serve as the Administrator of the Small Business Administration.[63]

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held confirmation hearings on March 22, 2017, and Acosta's nomination was reported out of the committee on March 30, 2017. [64]

On April 27, 2017, Acosta was confirmed as Secretary of Labor by the U.S. Senate in a 60–38 vote. He received the support of 8 Democratic Senators and all Republican Senators except Senator Pat Toomey, who did not participate in the vote.[65] On April 28, 2017, Acosta was sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence.[66]

Tenure

In 2019, Acosta proposed cutting the funding of his department's International Labor Affairs Bureau from $68 million in 2018 to under $20 million in 2020. That agency combats human trafficking (including child sex trafficking), child labor and forced labor internationally.[67][68]

Apprenticeship

During Acosta's confirmation hearing, he discussed the need and his support of apprenticeship as a workforce development tool to close the skills gap.[35] On June 15, 2017, President Trump signed Executive Order 13801, “Presidential Executive Order Expanding Apprenticeships in America,” establishing the Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion with Acosta serving as the chair.[69][70] The Task Force held five public meetings and issued their final report to President Trump on May 10, 2018.[71][70]

Following the Task Force final report, the U.S. Department of Labor announced the following initiatives to expand and promote apprenticeship opportunities:

Acosta announced that the Trump Administration has a goal of one million new apprentices.[75] On July 12th, 2019 Acosta announced his resignation as Labor Secretary following criticism of his role in the Epstein case.

Recognition

Acosta has twice been named one of the nation's 50 most influential Hispanics by Hispanic Business Magazine. He serves or served on the Florida Innocence Commission,[76] on the Florida Supreme Court's Commission on Professionalism,[77] Florida Supreme Court's Access to Justice Commission,[23] and on the Commission for Hispanic Rights and Responsibilities.[78] In 2008, Acosta was named as one of the 100 most influential people in business ethics by the Ethisphere Institute.[79]

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Bradley Schlozman
Acting
United States Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division
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Wan J. Kim
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United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida
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