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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Alex Acosta has been a DC lightning rod even without a Jeff Epstein scandal

Labor Secretary Alex Acosta in May.

Labor Secretary Alex Acosta in May. Credit: Getty Images/Alex Wong

More than a decade ago, as U.S. attorney for Florida's southern district, Alex Acosta negotiated a surprisingly lenient plea deal for billionaire sex offender Jeff Epstein that befuddled alleged victims and legal experts alike.

Epstein got a year in state jail and no federal charges. It took a long time for the disposition of the case, involving girls between 13 and 16, to become a big deal.

Now Epstein is charged anew in Manhattan with sex trafficking of minors — and Acosta's current role as President Donald Trump's labor secretary looks touch-and-go as a result.

In 2017, the Senate asked questions about the case but confirmed Acosta, who became a substitute nominee for the post after restaurant executive Andrew Puzder dropped out. Puzder's own companies were found to have cheated on wages, which might very well have been seen as a negative for someone enforcing labor rules.

Back in February, after the Miami Herald revealed controversial details of how Acosta handled Epstein's case, Trump said, "I know he's done a great job as labor secretary, and that seems like a long time ago, but I know he's been a fantastic labor secretary." 

What defines "great" and "fantastic" in Trump's view is anyone's guess. To others, Acosta's Labor Department has looked like a den of intrigue.

Even a senior Trump appointee told the Bloomberg Law website last month: “It is a fortress mentality. They don’t trust anyone else. Not just a senior career [employee]; they don’t trust anybody. It seeps through the organization and that’s why the morale is low.”

Other points cited in the story: Career officials are barred from taking notes during meetings with political staff; The No. 3 official has been isolated; Acosta edits proposed rules and policy memos but obscures that the changes are his.

Daniel Villao, who quit as a high-ranking department official, cited "waste, miscommunication, and duplicated effort" stemming from current management.

As a product of Harvard Law, and as Trump's first Latino nominee, Acosta brought in staff with conservative pedigrees like his own for the expected process of deregulation.

There has been delay, and White House frustration, over trying to craft a proposed rule to meet Trump's June 2017 executive order that called for "easing the regulatory burden" on apprenticeship programs. 

Acosta created an apprenticeship task force that delivered a 51-page report to Trump in May 2018 outlining its recommendations. But as Politico reported, there followed a year of silence on the matter and no sign that the needed rule would take effect.

One source told the website that Acosta has run afoul of presidential daughter/adviser Ivanka Trump and that she was "fed up" with the secretary.

 In another possible Acosta controversy, victims of human trafficking and other workplace crimes will have a tougher time getting visas certified by the Labor Department under a policy issued July 1.

As circumstance would have it, the department's wage-and-hour division is reported to be backing off on Obama-era protections for undocumented workers who point the finger at traffickers.

Still, it is the storm over the Epstein case that is giving Acosta his latest time in the barrel.

“I don’t know how he can survive this,” former federal prosecutor Elie Honig told CNN.

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