Back in February, U.S. Labor Secretary Alex Acosta was spotted grabbing a bite with Justice Samuel Alito Jr. at the downtown Washington restaurant Central Michel Richard. Acosta wasn’t meeting a stranger. He clerked for Alito in the early 1990s when he was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Washington dinners and lunches are a regular source of gossip and intrigue, as appearances and connections sometimes end up featured in news reports and raise questions about influence and intentions. Cabinet secretaries’ schedules can provide a peek into Washington’s power network.
Acosta’s would-be successor is a prominent Washington lawyer so closely entwined in the regulatory pulse of the country at the highest levels that he, too, has dined with the Labor secretary, according to Acosta’s calendars. Eugene Scalia is now preparing to take over the leadership of an agency where he had served as the top lawyer in the George W. Bush administration.
Today is Acosta’s last day in office, a forced departure that comes amid renewed criticism of the lenient plea deal he signed off on for sex offender Jeffrey Epstein more than a decade ago as Miami’s top federal prosecutor.
Acosta and Scalia, the Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher regulatory co-leader and a son of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, ate at an undisclosed location in January. Many of Acosta’s dinners were shared with pro-business leaders. The names of some guests are not revealed.
Scalia, whose nomination was announced in a Trump tweet on Thursday night, has long been a big name for household companies challenging class claims and regulatory oversight. The president said, “Gene has led a life of great success in the legal and labor field and is highly respected.” Scalia formerly led Gibson Dunn’s labor and employment practice.
Last year, Scalia represented the investment bank UBS Americas Inc. in challenging the power of employees to form a class action to fight compensation practices. Scalia was lead counsel to SeaWorld in a challenge to the penalty that federal workplace safety regulators imposed after a trainer was killed by a whale. Scalia led the Gibson Dunn team that successfully fought the Obama-era Labor Department rule that would put new burdens on financial advisers in the retirement-savings industry.
Sen. Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican who is also a Gibson Dunn alum, reportedly advocated for Scalia’s nomination as labor secretary. Cotton pitched Scalia to White House counsel Pat Cipollone and other administration officials, The Washington Post reported. In a statement Friday, Cotton said he was “confident he’ll be a champion for working Americans against red tape and burdensome regulations.”
Democrats assailed Trump’s intent to nominate Scalia. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic majority leader, said Trump “has again chosen someone who has proven to put corporate interests over those of worker rights.”
The revolving door between Gibson Dunn and the Trump administration hasn’t whirled as fast as it has with other law firms, such as Kirkland & Ellis and Jones Day. Gibson Dunn lawyers, including appellate partner Theodore Boutrous Jr., have played leading roles in some of the most visible cases, including immigration suits, against the Trump administration.
Scalia would be only one of a handful of Gibson Dunn attorneys to hold a leadership post in the Trump administration. Gibson Dunn appellate veteran Helgi Walker was informally approached last year about succeeding Rachel Brand as third-in-command at Main Justice, but she said she wasn’t interested in the post at the time. Theodore Olson turned down the opportunity to join Trump’s legal team.
In California, former Gibson Dunn partner Nicola Hanna serves as the U.S. attorney in Sacramento, and former associate Scott Stewart is a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s civil division. Two former associates—Coreen Mao and Trent Benishek—jumped this year to the Trump White House counsel’s office. At the White House, they joined Chad Mizelle, another former associate at the firm.
Scalia wasn’t the only household Washington name Acosta dined with this year. Some of the January dinner guests included Michael Chertoff, senior of counsel at Covington & Burling and a former secretary of Homeland Security, and Paul Atkins, a former SEC commissioner who played a lead role on the Trump transition team.
The liberal watchdog group American Oversight obtained more than 1,000 pages associated with Acosta’s calendars via the Freedom of Information Act. Politico, which closely reviewed the calendars, concluded the departing labor secretary more often had met with Republicans and business advocates than with labor union leaders.