Adam Serwer | The Atlantic | February 17, 2017 | 0 Comments

The Scandal That May Haunt the New Nominee for Labor Secretary

Alan Diaz/AP file photo

R. Alexander Acosta, President Trump’s pick to run the Labor Department following the withdrawal of Andrew Puzder’s nomination, was the head of the civil-rights division of the Department of Justice in the Bush administration during a period in which his subordinates became embroiled in a scandal over politicized hiring. That scandal raises questions about Acosta’s ability to effectively manage a much larger federal agency in an administration that has already shown a tendency to skirt ethics rules.

“That period, all hell broke in the civil rights division,” said William Yeomans, a professor of law at American University and a former deputy section chief in the division under Acosta. “That was all under Acosta, he presided over the politicization of the civil-rights division.”

At the time of his nomination to run the civil-rights division, Acosta had substantial bipartisan support––he was approved by voice vote in the Senate, and had the backing of Latino rights groups like the National Council of La Raza.  Acosta is of Cuban descent and would be the first Hispanic American in Trump’s cabinet.  But at the Justice Department, his subordinates skirted the law, seeking to purge liberal attorneys from the division and replace them with conservatives. Acosta told investigators he was unaware of what was occurring.

Yeomans, however, said he found that implausible. Yeomans recalled Acosta telling him that Acosta believed that he had been denied a position as a line attorney in the civil-rights division earlier in his career because he was conservative.

“It's not as if Alex didn't know what was going on,” Yeomans said. “I'm confident that he approved, it was part of the political goals of the political appointees to purge the civil-rights division of what they thought were a bunch of leftists.”

According to a 2008 joint report from the Department of Justice Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility, in 2003, while leading the division, Acosta delegated hiring authority to a subordinate, Sheldon Bradshaw, who in turn placed Bradley Schlozman in charge of hiring decisions for the division. The report concluded that Schlozman had broken civil-service laws by considering political affiliation in hiring, and that he had lied to the Senate Judiciary Committee about his activities. He was never prosecuted.

The report states that Schlozman used terms like “real Americans,” “right thinking,” “solid,” and “on the team” to describe conservative attorneys—the ones he wanted to hire—and that Bradshaw was aware of the meaning of those terms. Schlozman, deploying a colorful metaphor, stated in an email that “My tentative plans are to gerrymander all of those crazy libs rights out of the [voting] section.”

The report did not implicate Acosta in that process, but it did conclude that he and others in the division had “sufficient information about Schlozman’s conduct to have raised red flags warranting closer supervision of him.” However, “despite the warnings,” Acosta and others “took no action to investigate, bring the matter to the attention of their supervisors, or change Schlozman’s role in hiring for the Division.”

In particular, Acosta was made aware of an incident in which Schlozman approvingly forwarded a racist joke by another political appointee, voting-section chief John Tanner, in which he stated that he liked his coffee “black and bitter” like “Mary Frances Berry,” the then-chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Acosta told investigators that he had made Schlozman apologize over email. Investigators were unable to find such an email among Schlozman’s recovered correspondence––but they also did not have access to Acosta’s emails, because he had left the division years earlier to be a U.S. Attorney in Florida.

A career attorney in the division also claimed that she had warned Acosta that the people Schlozman was hiring were unqualified, but Acosta claimed that “no one complained to him that inappropriate hiring practices were taking place.”

Joe Rich of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights who was in the division during Acosta’s tenure, said “I assumed he must have known what was going on, but I can't say that from personal knowledge.

"He was in charge at the time that Schlozman was doing his thing, and did nothing to really stop that,” said Rich. “There were a few occasions when I tried to appeal decisions that Schlozman made to him, and I got short shrift in those appeals and got no where.”

The report concludes that Acosta and later civil-rights division head Wan Kim “did not sufficiently supervise Schlozman,” and that “in light of indications they had about Schlozman’s conduct and judgment, they failed to ensure that Schlozman’s hiring and personnel decisions were based on proper considerations.”

Yoemans said that Acosta’s management of the civil-rights division raises questions about his nomination as labor secretary. “His history of allowing the processes of the civil-rights division to be politicized doesn’t bode well for his running an entire federal agency,” said Yeomans.


Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.