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FBI Settles Black Agents' Discrimination Lawsuit

Law: Bureau must overhaul procedures and permit an outside mediator to review individual cases. But the director could overrule damage awards.

May 01, 2001|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Monday approved a sweeping settlement in a 10-year-old lawsuit between the FBI and some 500 current and former agents who contend they were systematically discriminated against because they are black.

The agreement requires the FBI to overhaul its promotion, evaluation and disciplinary procedures by 2004 to address the concerns of African American agents. It could also result in the awarding of monetary damages to individual agents who prove their claims of discrimination to an outside mediator.

Black FBI agents, who supported their claims with statistical models, argued that white agents were much more likely to gain promotions, win high-profile assignments with units such as the SWAT team, earn positive evaluations and avoid disciplinary action for misconduct.

The FBI has condoned a dual-track system that "allowed people to be promoted based on who they knew and not how they did their job," David J. Shaffer, a Washington attorney who is representing the black agents, said in an interview.

"This goes all the way back to J. Edgar Hoover," who headed the FBI for nearly half a century until 1972, Shaffer said. "White people promoted people who were white, who promoted people who were white, and so on. . . . Hopefully, this type of behavior will now be put behind us."

FBI officials declined to discuss the discrimination claims. But the agency said the settlement "reaffirms the FBI's commitment to reform of key aspects of its personnel system." It agreed to the settlement mainly to avoid the cost and time of trying a case that has already proved a major distraction, FBI officials and Justice Department lawyers said.

The black agents first sued the FBI in 1991. They reached a settlement three years later after a federal judge found that there was "statistical evidence of discrimination."

The FBI was supposed to institute a new personnel system by 1998, but the agents said it failed to do so. They went back to court that year and began a new round of negotiations.

The most significant difference between the pact--approved Monday by U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan--and the initial agreement is that it requires the FBI for the first time to bring in an outside mediator to assess discrimination complaints.

That provision could open up the FBI to millions of dollars in liability. Black agents who can persuade a mediator that they were denied promotions or discriminated against because of their race are eligible for up to $300,000 apiece under federal law, plus any lost wages, the attorneys said.

"It is really unprecedented for the FBI to allow an outsider to decide a personnel issue within the agency," said Ron Schmidt, another attorney for the agents.

The agreement gives the FBI director the authority to overrule a mediator's decision.

The agreement also requires the FBI to change the way it selects bureau supervisors within the next three years and to pay the agents' legal fees to date, $230,000.

About 12% of the more than 10,000 current FBI agents are African American, the agents' attorneys said. A handful of black agents have pressed individual claims against the FBI in recent years.

In the most notorious case, former FBI agent Donald Rochon won a $1-million settlement from the government in the early 1990s. He said that when he worked in FBI offices in Chicago and Omaha, white agents pasted photographs of apes over the family pictures at his desk and subjected him to other racist treatment. Eight FBI employees were disciplined.

The discrimination alleged by the 500 black agents--most of whom are still working at the bureau--is more subtle, their lawyers said.

"There weren't any claims of a racially hostile environment," Schmidt said. "You have a situation here where it's not overt, but from the numbers we saw, we were convinced that there was a [racial] disparity in treatment. There was a substantial shortfall in the number of black promotions, for instance, and the government had no explanation for that."

Federal law-enforcement agencies have been hit with repeated claims of racial discrimination in recent years. In 1988, hundreds of Latino FBI agents won a discrimination suit against the bureau after alleging that they were routinely given demeaning assignments on the "Taco Circuit."

In 1996, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agreed to pay $4.6 million to settle a lawsuit brought by black agents. And 250 African American Secret Service agents--including some who were assigned to protect former Vice President Al Gore--are moving ahead this month with an expanded lawsuit in federal court.

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