His may not be a household name, but residents of Palm Beach County know the work of Alex Acosta, the former U.S. attorney set to be the first and only Hispanic in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet if confirmed as labor secretary.
Acosta, a Cuban-American, served as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida from 2006 to 2009 and spearheaded public corruption prosecutions here after reports in The Palm Beach Post and federal investigations. When the dust settled, the political landscape in “Corruption County” had forever changed.
His office also was involved in the controversial prosecution of billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, deciding in 2008 to let state prosecutors handled charges that Epstein engaged in sex with dozens of underage girls in what victims in a court document called “a sweetheart plea deal.”
But Acosta’s public corruption prosecutions took plenty of scalps.
Palm Beach County Commissioners Tony Masilotti, Warren Newell and Mary McCarty and West Palm Beach City Commissioners Jim Exline and Ray Liberti ended up doing time on corruption charges. And they were just the big names.
Trump quickly nominated Acosta on Thursday after his initial pick to lead the Labor Department — fast-food executive Andrew F. Puzder — withdrew his name after concerns emerged among both Democrats and Republicans about his business record and character.
Acosta is currently the dean of the College of Law at Miami’s Florida International University. A Harvard graduate, he served briefly as a member of the National Labor Relations Board. He also was the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division for the Justice Department prior to coming to Florida.
‘Politics never an issue’
In Acosta, Trump gets a lifelong Republican who knows the Washington landscape and the confirmation process well.
Palm Beach County Circuit Judge John Kastrenakes, who was the lead federal prosecutor on the corruption cases, said Acosta was hands-on in cleaning up the pay-for-play culture in Palm Beach County.
“When it came to the prosecution of public officials, politics was never an issue with Alex. It was never once discussed. He just wanted to do the right thing. He was great U.S. attorney,” he said.
Miami lawyer Jeffrey Sloman served as Acosta’s chief assistant at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami. A Democrat, he called Acosta a perfect pick following the withdrawal of Puzder. “He respects the process. He is not an ideologue,” Sloman said.
Former U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis got to know the man who would be a successor while both were serving in the Justice Department in Washington. Lewis said that Acosta had “incredible experience” with both the NLRB and in the Justice Department. The Southern District of Florida is considered one of the “most dynamic and difficult districts in the U.S.” spanning from Fort Pierce to Key West, Lewis noted.
Lewis, also a Miami attorney, said as the dean of the College of Law at FIU since 2009, Acosta has raised the profile of the commuter school tremendously. “We regularly recruit out of FIU, and really to a person they love Alex,” he said. “He has really raised their profile.”
But Lewis said Acosta brings to Trump’s Cabinet something it has been sorely lacking: a Hispanic.
“Alex really brings to the table the Cuban-American experience,” he said. “Diversity is a good a thing, and Alex will bring the perspective that very few people have.”
Acosta is the third Floridian that part-time Palm Beach resident Trump has tapped for his Cabinet. Trump nominated Palm Beach resident Wilbur Ross for commerce secretary and Palm Beach Gardens resident Ben Carson for secretary of housing and urban development. Ross and Carson have received committee approval but have not been confirmed by the full Senate.
Acosta was not by Trump’s side when his nomination was announced in Washington. The president lauded Acosta’s Ivy League credentials and said: “He has had a tremendous career. He will be a tremendous secretary of labor.”
The administration also released a statement by Trump:
“Throughout his career, Alex Acosta has been a passionate advocate for equal opportunity for all Americans,” said President Trump, adding that the South Floridian would be “a key part of achieving our goal of revitalizing the American economy, manufacturing and labor force.”
Acosta, never known for grandstanding, simply stated in the news release that he was deeply grateful and honored for the opportunity to serve. “I am eager to work tirelessly on behalf of the American worker,” he said.
Though far from the polarizing figure of Puzder, Acosta may face some questions about the Epstein case and his time as head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President George W. Bush.
Acosta was criticized in two 2009 reports from the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, citing him for failing to supervise a rogue section chief and writing an Ohio judge days before the 2004 presidential election supporting a Republican viewpoint on voter challenges.
Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said she was “astonished” at Acosta’s nomination.
“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 in a statement.
She said political and ideological affiliations were used as a litmus test to evaluate job candidates and career attorneys. “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,” Clarke wrote.
Another issue that may bedevil Acosta in a confirmation is Epstein, a billionaire with reported ties to both Trump, former President Bill Clinton and Britain’s Prince Andrew.
Last year, new documents revealed the “sweetheart plea deal’ for Epstein — who was facing substantial prison time — where both Acosta and then-State Attorney Barry Krischer bowed to pressure by Epstein’s powerful cadre of attorneys.
Victims were kept in the dark about the deal that included a federal non-prosecution agreement. Epstein pleaded guilty to two minor state charges.
“The government does not write even a single sentence explaining why it entered into an NPA (non-prosecution agreement) with a sex offender who had committed hundreds of federal sex offenses against young girls,” a court motion read in civil litigation seeking in invalidate the plea deal.
Post reporter George Bennett contributed to this story