Trump's Labor secretary pick Acosta will have to escape his past record
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Andrew Puzder, a fast-food CEO with a track record of opposition to workplace regulations and protections, recently withdrew as the nominee for the U.S. Department of Labor Secretary.  Labor organizations and employee advocacy groups viewed his withdrawal as a win – Puzder was clearly unfit to serve in a role tasked with protecting American workers.  

Under Puzder’s leadership, the Department of Labor likely would have slowed down enforcement of important labor laws to the benefit of corporations.  

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With the nomination of Puzder behind us, the American public should continue to demand a nominee who will bring sterling credentials to this critical role and who will vigorously enforce the country’s labor laws on behalf of workers. For that reason, the nomination of Alexander Acosta must be evaluated with great scrutiny.

 

Acosta led the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department at a time that was marked by stark politicization, especially in the improper hiring and personnel decisions that were fully laid to bare in a 2008 report issued by the Office of Inspector General.  

This stinging report found that actions taken during Acosta's tenure violated Justice Department policy and federal law. Political and ideological affiliations were used by some of his deputies as a litmus test to evaluate job candidates and career attorneys, creating a challenging working environment for career employees and wreaking havoc on the work of the Division.

This egregious conduct played out under Acosta's watch and the Inspector General found that, despite the special litigation section chief informing Acosta of the wrongdoing, Acosta failed to take sufficient action to address the illegal and unprofessional actions.  

For career employees, like me, who worked in the Civil Rights Division during this tumultuous period, it was an incredibly difficult time.  

The U.S. Department of Justice is a unique branch of the federal government that is to stand above the political fray and ensure that its work is carried out with faithfulness to the rule of law.  Instead, the enforcement work of the Division stalled, and politics infected virtually every aspect of the Division’s work.  

While employees identified in the Inspector General report, particularly Acosta’s Principal Deputy, Bradley Schlozman, were directly responsible for the egregious conduct described in that report, it played out during Acosta’s tenure at the helm of the Division.

Among a number of matters demonstrating the politicization of the Civil Rights Division’s work, a case brought in federal court in Ohio just before the 2004 election concerning voter suppression of African-American voters is especially illustrative.  

The Justice Department was not a party in the case in which African-American voters challenged a “voter caging” scheme designed to suppress their ability to vote.  Evidence produced at a hearing in the case demonstrated that two-thirds of the precincts to which challengers were sent under the contested scheme served predominantly African-American neighborhoods and that 97 percent of new African-American voters would encounter a challenger, compared to only 14 percent of new white voters.  

Just days before election day, Acosta took the highly unusual step of sending a letter directly to the judge hearing the case arguing that the challenges were not barred under the Voting Rights Act, without any mention of the evidence demonstrating the discriminatory adverse impact on African-American voters.  

Moreover, the filing of this letter broke with well-established Department of Justice policy of not getting involved in a contentious election on the eve of an election.  In the end, the District Court ignored the position taken in this letter and enjoined the vote caging scheme.

I am aware that Acosta’s nomination brings needed diversity to a line-up of nominations and appointments that has been sparse on racial and ethnic diversity. That said, the Senate Committee is now tasked with carefully reviewing Acosta’s nomination to determine whether he is capable of leading the Department of Labor without being influenced by political or financial interests.   

The Committee has an obligation to ensure that this nominee, and all nominees, bring unquestionable integrity and commitment to the work of our executive-branch agencies.  

Acosta will have an uphill battle in demonstrating that the significant record of politicization amassed during his time at the Justice Department is one that can be set aside.  

Working families cannot afford a rolling back of employee protections.  They need a staunch advocate at the helm of the Department of Labor who will work to improve their lives by aggressively enforcing anti-discrimination, wage and hour and workplace safety laws. Acosta’s record shows he is likely not that advocate.

Kristen Clarke is the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.


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