Alexander Acosta: Trump Labor pick’s history in South Florida

Editor’s Note: This story originally was published in The Palm Beach Post on Feb. 1, 2009. As President Donald Trump names Alexander Acosta as his nominee for labor secretary, we are posting this article from our archives to provide our readers with more insight into Acosta’s lengthy history in Palm Beach County and South Florida.

Three out of seven county commissioners, gone. Two out of five city commissioners, gone. A power-broker lawyer, a developer, gone, gone. Undisclosed "others" in prosecutors' sights. 

The four-year tenure of R. Alexander Acosta as South Florida's U.S. attorney has seen a series of corruption cases like none before in Palm Beach County. 

His office's 284 lawyers, from Key West to Vero Beach, also have convicted bank chairmen, corporate executives and the torturer son of Liberia's ex-president. They have dismantled gangs and felled dozens of companies for fraudulent mortgage lending and Medicare scams. 

Now, as the Obama administration settles into power, Acosta's tenure may be nearing an end. The 40-year-old Miami native, a Harvard-educated Republican appointed under former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, says he'd like to keep his job, but he acknowledges that new presidents tend to appoint new U.S. attorneys. 

While his future is yet to be decided, Acosta is making what could be one final big change: establishing a public corruption unit to sharpen his office's ability to catch crooked officials from Broward to Indian River counties. 

Prosecutors assigned to this Public Integrity Section, revealed in an interview with The Palm Beach Post last week, would not have to handle immigration or murder cases, or other duties that would detract from their focus. And they would report to the unit's leader, not to a local supervisor, regardless of where a case arises. 

"It's my hope that, with this unit, they'll have the resources and time to continue their public corruption investigations," Acosta said. 

He has not announced who will head the unit or where it will be based. 


High-profile prosecutions 


Civic leaders laud Acosta for the corruption cases' impact on Palm Beach County. 

"The opportunity we have now to change the culture in Palm Beach County is clearly a result of all of the prosecution that he has brought," said Marty Rogol, immediate past president of Leadership Palm Beach County, which has launched a campaign to promote ethics in public life. "Without him it would have been business as usual in Palm Beach County." 

Acosta's office also has made the region's rampant Medicare fraud a priority for prosecution. 

The office prosecuted 159 health-care fraud cases last year, up from 53 in 2005. Though the office detected $1.5 billion of Medicare fraud during the past three years, Acosta estimated that $8 billion to $10 billion is probably closer to the amount stolen. 

In one operation, agents set out to survey and inspect every medical equipment company listed as having taken Medicare money in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties -- 1,581 places in all. 

"I wanted really, really tough criteria," he said sarcastically. "One: Are they there? Two: Are they open? Three: Do they have a telephone? 

"Guess how many failed: 491," he said. "One out of three. They didn't exist." 

Amid the real estate market's collapse, the U.S. attorney's office also has made a priority of mortgage fraud prosecutions. During the past year and a half, 124 defendants have been charged, accused of making $182 million in fraudulent loans. 

The office cites a number of high-profile drug prosecutions. Among them: the extradition and guilty plea of Ze'ev Rosenstein, head of the most powerful criminal organization in Israel; guilty pleas by Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, who founded the Cali drug cartel; December's extradition of Diego Montoya, once one of Colombia's two most powerful traffickers; and, in late January, a guilty plea by Montoya's brother Eugenio. 

Prosecutions for gun and gang-related crimes also have been in South Florida prosecutors' sights. According to Acosta, the office prosecuted 405 such cases last year, compared with 224 in 2006. 

The office brought racketeering laws to bear against gangs for the first time in South Florida, enabling prosecutors to "take out the entire leadership," he said. Prosecutors charged 14 members of one nationwide gang trying to get a foothold in the region, the Bloods. 

Acosta is most proud of the torture conviction of Charles Taylor Jr., son of the former president of Liberia. In the first use of a 1994 U.S. law against torture, Taylor was sentenced in early January to 97 years in prison. 

Though Taylor tortured his victims in Liberia, U.S. prosecutors could charge him because he was born in the United States and flew to Miami, setting foot in the jurisdiction. 

Victims described horrific acts. One testified that Taylor held a gun to his head and drizzled boiling water into the man's cupped hands, threatening to shoot if the man flinched or let water drip to the ground. 

Going after this kind of transoceanic case carries controversy, Acosta said: The distance from the scene of the horrors makes it expensive to investigate, and challenging for defendants to gather evidence and mount a defense. But for the government, such cases present an opportunity. 

"If these people are present in the U.S., what do we want to do as a country?" Acosta said. "We can take responsibility and try them ourselves." 

Acosta himself is not without controversy. He brought political baggage with him when he moved back to Miami in May 2005, after serving as assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. 

At about the time that he won the plum posting as South Florida's top cop, several U.S. attorneys around the country were being fired, allegedly for not toeing the Bush administration line in political prosecutions. One of those accused of politicizing the department's hiring practices, Bradley Schlozman, had worked under Acosta. 

The department's inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility, in a report released in January, found that Schlozman had inappropriately considered politics and ideology in hiring attorneys for the Civil Rights Division. He showed disdain for those he believed were liberal and expressed a desire to hire "real Americans," meaning conservatives, several division attorneys told investigators. 

The investigators faulted Acosta for failing to clamp down on Schlozman. Acosta declined to comment, saying he's a potential witness in an ongoing investigation. 

Some ex-staffers contended that under Acosta, the Civil Rights Division took on a politically charged atmosphere. In one 2004 voting-rights case in Ohio, Acosta wrote a letter defending GOP efforts to identify unqualified voters who should be purged from the rolls in mostly black districts. 

No accusations of playing political favorites have dogged Acosta in his South Florida posting. 

"My oath always has been to the Constitution and rule of law, and I think my record makes that clear," he said. 

Of the five Palm Beach County and West Palm Beach commissioners his office has charged, four were Republicans. The fifth, former County Commissioner Warren Newell, was a Republican until switching parties in 2007 with an eye on his 2008 reelection campaign. 


Tenure longest in decades 


During the past three years, prosecutions led by Assistant U.S. Attorney John Kastrenakes have led to the imprisonment of County Commissioners Tony Masilotti and Newell, and of West Palm Beach City Commissioners Jim Exline and Ray Liberti. Also down for the count: power-broker attorney Bill Boose and Wellington developer Daniel Miteff. 

Most recently, Republican politico Mary McCarty swapped out her county commissioner title for "Prisoner No. 73341-004," as she's identified in court records, pending an anticipated guilty plea to a conspiracy count. Among other accusations, prosecutors allege that she failed to disclose that votes she made on bond underwriting decisions would profit her and her husband, Kevin, who has pleaded guilty to failing to report her crime. 

Acosta has let it be known that other corruption cases are in the works. But Kastrenakes, his top corruption-buster, is expected to be tied up for the next three months prosecuting four people on charges surrounding the slaying of a family along Florida's Turnpike. 

After four years at the helm of one of the nation's busiest U.S. attorney's offices, Acosta has held the job longer than anyone since the 1970s, he said, stepping into a waiting area outside his office to check years on portraits of his predecessors. 

He said he's not ready to talk about his career options. 

"I recognize the time will come," Acosta said. "My goal is to set up the office in a way that fosters a more orderly transition."

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