Secret Service racism suit gets another day in court
Atlanta plaintiffs, others say promotions based on race, not merit
By REBECCA CARR
Cox News Service
Published on: 12/06/07
A long-running federal lawsuit that alleges systemic discrimination against African-Americans in the U.S. Secret Service — including the Atlanta field office — could take a new turn on Monday.
The class-action suit with sworn statements from 58 African-American agents from across the country alleging that "a racially hostile environment" exists at the agency has languished for seven years.
Secret Service agents watch from the top of a Centers for Disease Control building during a 2001 visit from President George W. Bush.
The government has been sanctioned twice for failing to produce evidence in a timely fashion and refusing to produce evidence as required under civil procedure rules, records show.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson has ordered the government to produce evidence more than 20 times — a number that far exceeds typical cases, legal experts say.
On Monday Robinson will hear arguments about whether to sanction the government yet again, this time for stating in sworn declarations that the service does not archive "unofficial" interpersonal e-mails when, in fact, it does archive them, according to court documents.
The delays have frustrated the plaintiffs, who allege that white agents routinely leapfrog over black agents despite higher scores on promotional exams, and black agents are sent undercover because it is assumed they talk the "street" language and where a white "good ol' boy network" prevails.
Cheryl L. Tyler, a former agent, said the Atlanta office was known as the "chocolate office" during the 1980s because 8 out of 75 agents were black.
Tyler shared an office with a white agent who called his child "dumb n-----" in her presence, according to her statement.
And white agents in the office openly talked about attending an annual whites-only "Good Ol' Boy Round Up" where law enforcement agents watched mock lynchings of blacks while eating their barbecue, Tyler said. In 1996, government investigators found that federal law enforcement agents from several agencies, including the service, attended the event, but none directly engaged in bad conduct.
The Secret Service has effectively blocked the 7-year-old case from moving forward by failing to release documents, testimony and communications, according to lawyers representing the plaintiffs, who seek to force the service to change its promotion system so that agents are promoted based on merit, not race and who they know.
Eric Zahren, a spokesman for the service, declined to respond to the plaintiff's allegations. He rejected the notion that the government has delayed the case by failing to respond to basic discovery motions.
"We have and will continue to approach all litigation in good faith," Zahren said. "We have always maintained that the only proper forum for resolution of legal and procedural disagreements between sides is in court."
300,000 documents turned over
Over the past seven years, the service has provided more than 300,000 documents in response to numerous motions filed by attorneys for the plaintiffs, Zahern said. In those documents, the government has tried, unsuccessfully, to get the case dismissed because "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact regarding plaintiff's claims concerning discriminatory testing, hiring, discipline and undercover assignments. " Court documents say revealing too much information would thwart the mission of the Secret Service, undermining national security.
Melissa Henke, part of a team at the Hogan & Hartson law firm representing the agents for free, said the service is attempting to keep basic information from being revealed in court.
The service is "hiding behind unsubstantiated allegations that engaging in the civil discovery process will somehow undermine the Secret Service mission," Henke said.
What does undermine the mission, Henke said, is allowing an "environment of unfairness to pervade the agency."
In some cases, this has resulted in unqualified people being promoted above the more qualified African-American agents, she said. In other cases, some of the most qualified African-American agents have been driven out of the Secret Service due to racism and the lack of advancement.
Overt racism is not as apparent today as it was when the lawsuit was filed in 2000, said Yvette Summerour, an African-American supervisor in the Atlanta field office and a plaintiff in the case.
But it took Summerour 16 years to get promoted to her current rank of GS-14, one level behind the highest level of civil service. That is about twice as long as it takes a typical white agent, black agents say. Other agents interviewed dispute that figure.
Despite finally getting what she wanted — a promotion and a job back in Atlanta where her whole family lives — Summerour continues to fight.
When she gets low and wants to just quit, Summerour thinks back to her time as an agent assigned to cover Chelsea Clinton.
On a trip with Chelsea and Hillary Clinton to Senegal, they visited the island known as the Door of No Return, a place where captured Africans were physically separated from their families and sent to America to become slaves. Summerour's emotions took over. She cried on the job — a taboo in the upright world of the service. Back at the hotel, Hillary Clinton sought her out and asked how she was doing.
Summerour told her she just needed to put what happened behind her.
Clinton, Summerour said, turned toward her. "Don't you ever forget because if you forget, it can happen again."
And that is why, Summerour says, she won't give up the legal fight. She is home. She finally has her promotion. But she looks at the young African-Americans coming up the ranks and doesn't want it to happen to them.
"Make no mistake, if it takes another 8 years, if it takes until after I retire, I will see this through," she said.
30 years of discrimination?
In sworn statements filed with the court, black agents allege more than three decades of discriminatory practices. They say that while they now number about 10 percent of the service's estimated 2,500 agents, a "white man's network" keeps them from reaching the upper rungs of management. When the lawsuit was first filed in 2000 by veteran civil rights lawyer John Relman, the number of blacks in the top tier was said to be 4.2 percent. The service disputes those figures in legal documents.
The service declined to confirm those figures or to say how many blacks it has on its force today and how many of them are in senior management positions.
So far, the alleged discrimination has failed to undermine the mission of Secret Service Agent Reginald G. Moore, an Atlanta native who is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Moore finds himself leading the service's African-American agents who want to end discrimination that he believes kept him from being promoted at least 140 times. In most cases the agent promoted was white, had less experience and a lower score on the promotions exam, he said.
But on a June day in 1999, Moore walked into the White House Joint Operation Center with the confident air of a man about to be promoted. Moore had recently completed his fifth high-risk mission overseas guarding then-President Clinton, long-considered a must to advance to the next level.
He had the acting supervisor title, complete with office, car and the keys to the entire White House complex. He had scored 97.03 out of 100 on the service's promotion exam. His evaluation glowed, stating that he "completes each and every assignment with the tact, diplomacy and professionalism consistent with the highest traditions of the Secret Service."
Everyone said the job would be his. Except it wasn't. As Moore entered the center that warm day, an agent looked up from his desk. The promotions list had been posted. "Sorry, just heard," he said. A white agent, who had scored about the same on the exam — 97.27 out of 100 — got the job even though he never served on the presidential detail.
Moore was ordered to train the new supervisor and report to work in Dallas, a move that require uprooting his pregnant wife and daughter. It was a turning point for Moore, an agent who had worked his way up through the service's ranks after graduating from the University of West Georgia in Carrollton.
He hired Relman and filed a federal lawsuit alleging discrimination against the some 200 black agents in the service in 2000. Seven years later, Moore is still fighting, despite winning a promotion to the highest level of the service, a GS-15.
Moore stays because he wants to ensure that the hiring and promotion policies are permanently changed to make it fair for black and minority agents in the future.
"I want to be sure that the good ol' boy network doesn't stop a black agent in the future," Moore said.