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Five things you should know about Alexander Acosta, Trump’s new pick for labor secretary

President Trump said Feb. 16 that he’s chosen Alexander Acosta to be labor secretary. (Alan Diaz/AP)

Labor groups, unions and lawmakers in both political parties are still getting to know Alexander Acosta, President Trump’s latest pick for labor secretary.

Acosta, 48, is the dean of Florida International University’s law school and was a member of the National Labor Relations Board from 2002 to 2003. He also worked as an assistant attorney general for the civil rights division of the Justice Department under President George W. Bush. After building a career in Washington, Acosta returned home to Miami as a U.S. attorney.

Acosta has been confirmed by the Senate for three positions, which may help him have a smooth vetting process.

Here is a look at some other aspects of Acosta’s record:

1. He is a conservative Republican.

After graduating from Harvard Law School, Acosta clerked for Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., then a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. He served as a fellow for the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative Washington-based think tank, between 1998 and 2000. Acosta is also a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.

His conservative views came under scrutiny while he was heading the civil rights division. A 2008 report from the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General found that Acosta “did not sufficiently supervise” the hiring patterns of a former senior division official who favored people with “conservative political or ideological affiliations” over those with more human rights or civil rights experience.

2. At the Justice Department, he wrote a controversial letter supporting poll watchers. 

When Acosta was at the Justice Department, he took what some say was an unusual step of writing a letter to an Ohio judge four days before the 2004 election. The judge was hearing a lawsuit challenging Republican plans to place poll monitors in predominantly black neighborhoods, which critics claimed was a violation of the Voting Rights Act. Acosta, who was an assistant attorney general at the time, said in the letter that there was “nothing in the Voting Rights Act” that condemns the use of poll monitors, which supporters said would help eliminate voter fraud but which critics viewed as voter intimidation.

It was considered unusual for someone from the Justice Department’s civil rights division to write a letter to a judge without asking to intervene in the case, said Kristen Clarke, an attorney who worked at the division at the time. The move was considered “problematic” by a team vetting Acosta when he was being considered for the role of dean at the University of Florida’s law school in 2014, and contributed to him not getting the job, according to the Miami Herald. The letter made it appear as if the Justice Department was “putting political pressure on the judge,” University of Florida law professor Michelle Jacobs told the Herald.

3. Acosta has defended civil rights for Muslim Americans.

There are at least two notable cases in which Acosta has defended the civil rights of Muslim Americans. One is a case from 2004 when Acosta, who was then with the civil rights division, intervened to help defend an 11-year-old student who had sued her Oklahoma school district for requiring her to remove her hijab because it violated the school’s dress code. “No student should be forced to choose between following her faith and enjoying the benefits of a public education,” Acosta said in a statement at the time, according to a report from CNN. The school district settled with the Justice Department and changed its dress code.

In 2011, as dean of the law school at Florida International University, Acosta testified before Congress in support of protecting Muslim Americans’ civil rights. He told the story of the 11-year-old he helped to defend years before. and he also shared the anecdote of a Muslim American college student who had served in the National Guard and the U.S. Army. He closed by saying that even though “emotions remained charged” 10 years after 9/11, it was a good time for Americans  to remember “that no community has a monopoly on any particular type of crime.”

The comments and work are relevant now because Acosta would be tasked with enforcing anti-discrimination laws if confirmed as labor secretary.

4. He worked on some high-profile cases as U.S. attorney.

As a top federal prosecutor in Miami, Acosta led the case against Washington GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was charged with five counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy related to the purchase of gambling boats. Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and tax charges in 2006. Acosta was also involved in the prosecution of accused terrorist Jose Padilla, who was allegedly part of an al-Qaeda support cell in South Florida that was raising money for terrorists.

Acosta achieved convictions against Colombian drug cartel members Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela. He led the case against Charles “Chuckie” Taylor Jr., who was convicted of torturing people who opposed his father, a former Liberian president. He also oversaw the case against Jeffrey Epstein, the wealthy financier accused of running a sex ring with underage girls. Epstein avoided federal charges when he pleaded guilty to state charges of soliciting prostitution, an agreement that was criticized by some of the alleged victims.

5. Acosta is the chairman of a community bank.

In addition to his role at the law school, Acosta is chairman of U.S. Century Bank, a community bank in South Florida. Acosta, who joined the bank in 2013, was credited by colleagues with helping to turn the bank around, according to Bloomberg News. Under his leadership, the bank diversified its loan portfolio to rely less on commercial real estate and had a profitable year in 2016.