Labor Secretary Alex Acosta Resigns; Acting Secretary Said to Be More ‘Pro-Business’

Forced departure may reflect White House frustration with Acosta’s slow work on Obama-era regulations

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie July 12, 2019
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​Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, under fire for securing a plea deal for convicted pedophile and newly indicted Jeffrey Epstein, resigned his post under pressure today, leaving as acting secretary a man who's considered more aggressively pro-business than Acosta.

Current Labor Deputy Secretary Patrick Pizzella, who will become acting secretary until the president names a permanent replacement, is reportedly poised to move more quickly than his predecessor to reverse Obama-era regulations that irk businesses.

President Donald Trump announced Acosta's resignation this morning with Acosta at his side.

"I thought the right thing was to step aside," Acosta said. 

He added that he didn't think it "right and fair for this administration's Labor Department to have Epstein as the focus rather than the incredible economy that we have today."

Acosta was nominated and sworn in as secretary in 2017. He was a former National Labor Relations Board member, served as assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division under President George W. Bush and was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

It was while at his post in Florida 11 years ago that Acosta brokered a secret plea deal allowing Epstein to escape serious punishment for earlier allegations that he lured underage girls to his Palm Beach mansion for sex acts. Though prosecutors sought to put Epstein in prison for many years, the deal by Acosta's office put Epstein in a county jail for only 13 months. Meanwhile, Epstein's victims didn't know about the plea arrangement until after a judge had approved it.

Acosta's ties to Epstein are under new scrutiny after federal prosecutors on July 8 charged Epstein with new counts of sex trafficking and conspiracy.

At a press conference July 10, Acosta called Epstein's actions "despicable" and said Epstein "absolutely" deserved harsher punishment. However, he explained, many of Epstein's victims refused to come forward, which made the case difficult to prosecute. In earlier explanations, Acosta also said his office was up against Epstein's many well-paid lawyers.

More 'Middle of the Road' than Other Picks

When nominated for DOL secretary, Acosta was viewed as more middle of the road politically and more willing to compromise than other potential picks. But corporate lobbyists and some White House officials have reportedly grown frustrated that Acosta hasn't moved fast enough on deregulation and other business-friendly initiatives.

Acosta has said on several occasions that the Fair Labor Standards Act's exempt salary threshold for white-collar workers needs to be raised, just not by as much as the blocked Obama administration-era rule would have required.

The Obama administration sought to raise the threshold to $47,476, but a federal judge in Texas said the rule is invalid. For now, the 2004 threshold of $23,660 remains—which Acosta has said is too low.

"Life has become much more expensive," he told a House of Representatives committee in late 2017.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) agrees with the DOL's proposal to stick to the 2004 method for setting a salary threshold. Under the 2004 method, the salary threshold would be $35,308 annually.

But the proposed minimum required salary for the highly compensated employee exemption, which the DOL recommends increasing from $100,000 to $147,414, is too high, SHRM said.

Acosta told business groups he is considering an automatic adjustment to the salary threshold that will keep pace with inflation. SHRM and business groups have said there should be no automatic adjustments, but instead the DOL should update the rule regularly through notice and comment procedures.  

"Most, if not all, of the business groups … have come up in opposition to automatic increases," Michael Lotito, an attorney with Littler in San Francisco, told SHRM Online earlier this year.

[SHRM members-only Express Request: Managing Political Discussions]

White House Frustration

Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who took his post in January, has dictated that all regulatory disagreements between the DOL and the White House be sent to him for a final decision—reflecting his frustration with the department's pace on reversing or softening regulations on overtime pay, job training and workplace safety.

Mulvaney "may be seizing on an opportunity to try to depose a frequent antagonist who has frustrated some conservatives in the White House and business leaders on the outside," Politico reported. "Acosta critics, including Mulvaney, have argued that he has not been aggressive enough in stamping out Obama-era workplace regulations and employment discrimination lawsuits, and they are using the Epstein lawsuit to push him out the door."

Mulvaney told reporters: "I push all of the Cabinet secretaries on the deregulatory agenda, as it is a top priority of the president. That in no way should be interpreted as displeasure with any Cabinet member, including Secretary Acosta."

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