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Labor nominee Acosta defends decisions, philosophy in confirmation hearing

By Allen Cone
Labor nominee Acosta defends decisions, philosophy in confirmation hearing
Labor Secretary nominee Alex Acosta testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. He is currently the law school dean at Florida Intrernational University and formerly served in the U.S. Justice Department. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

March 22 (UPI) -- Alexander Acosta, President Donald Trump's second choice for labor secretary, explained his work in the Justice Department and his thin record on labor issues during a Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday.

Acosta, 48, currently Florida International University's law school dean and former head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, answered various questions from the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

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His background is unlike Trump's first choice, Andrew Puzder, the fast food executive with Carl's Jr. and Hardee's who withdrew his candidacy in February. Puzder had employed an undocumented housekeeper and was accused of abuse by his wife in the 1980s, a claim she later rescinded.

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Asosta's only experience outside government and academia is his chairmanship of U.S. Century Bank, a domestically owned Hispanic bank, in 2013.

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Acosta said Wednesday that he learned about work ethics from his parents, both Cuban exiles who lived "paycheck to paycheck."

"Helping Americans find good jobs, safe jobs, should not be a partisan issue," he said, assuring senators that he would not be guided by partisan politics.

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"If confirmed, I will work to enforce the laws under the department's jurisdiction fully and fairly," Acosta said in his opening statement to the Senate panel. "As a former prosecutor, I will always be on the side of the law and not any particular constituency."

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And that includes staff appointments, Acosta said.

"Political views on the hiring of career attorneys for staff should not be used," he said. "If I am asked to do that I will not allow it."

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Acosta was also questioned about labor policies -- including whether he would defend a rule by the Obama administration to require employers pay overtime to workers earning less than $47,500 and working more than 40 hours a week.

"I will look at this very closely," he said. "The economy does feel a substantial impact from such a large change."

A federal judge put the rule on hold in November.

Acosta said he believes the monthly job numbers produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics are a "transparent procedure." Trump has previously called the official unemployment rate "phony" and a "hoax" -- until a good report this month.

Asked about Trump's budget proposal to cut Labor Department funding by more than 20 percent, he said he would examine individual programs "on a local basis."

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He was also asked about a deal for billionaire banker Jeffrey Epstein in 2008 not to charge him in federal court if he pleaded guilty to a state charge of prostitution solicitation, served 18 months in jail and registered as a sex offender. Ultimately, he only served 12 months.

"At the end of the day, based on the evidence, professionals within a prosecutor's office decide that a plea -- that guarantees that someone goes to jail, that guarantees that someone register generally and that guarantees other outcomes -- is a good thing," he said.

Democrats brought up a 2008 report by the Justice Department's in-house investigator, who found Acosta's civil rights office violated federal law and department policies that weighs political affiliations to hire and assess workers. The report mainly faulted his subordinate, Bradley Schlozman.

"That conduct should not have happened," Acosta said. "It happened on my watch. ... I deeply regret it."

Acosta, who would become the only Hispanic member of Trump's Cabinet, has been through the Senate confirmation process three times.

In 2002, President George W. Bush picked Acosta to sit on the National Labor Relations Board before he led the Justice Department's civil rights division and became U.S. attorney in South Florida. He received a bachelor's degree in economics and a law degree from Harvard.

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