Suit claims race bias at Secret Service

May 28, 2008 6:06:00 PM PDT
Secret Service agent Ray Moore recalls the excitement of being told he was going to protect Bill Clinton, then president of the United States. "Going to the president's detail is the ultimate for a Secret Service agent because that's what you aspire to do," he said.

"I wanted to go there and make the managers proud for selecting me."

There is one moment he says he will never forget: the opportunity to introduce his grandmother to the president.

"It was everything I hoped it would be and more," he said of protecting the president.

"You're making sure that the president is safe. You're making sure that your coworkers are safe, and you're making sure that the general public is safe," he said. "But at the same time, you are protecting the office of the president. There is no better feeling, no bigger adrenaline rush for a Secret Service agent."

Moore had been drawn to the mystique and professionalism of the Secret Service ? the images of patriotism and prestige. Guarding presidents and dignitaries, keeping them safe, even if duty calls one of the stoic men or women to do as they are trained and step in front of a bullet.

The best of the best, they are immortalized in Hollywood dramas such as "In the Line of Fire."

But Moore has been fighting an agency he loves for nearly a decade because of what he says is racial discrimination that kept him from getting promoted. He is one of 10 current and former black agents who have filed a lawsuit claiming bias. More than 100 current and former agents are also party to the suit.

"I firmly believe that I have been discriminated against, and I know that I've been discriminated against, and I know other African-American agents have been discriminated against because of the system that the Secret Service has in place of hiring, promoting, evaluating, transferring," Moore said.

Desmond Hogan, the attorney representing the plaintiffs in their suit against the Secret Service, says "we have, through the evidence we've developed in this case, demonstrated that there is a pattern of discrimination in the promotion process of the Secret Service."

The Secret Service flatly rejects the allegations, but the lawsuit has led to the discovery of troubling internal e-mails circulated among senior Secret Service managers.

One video e-mail attachment depicts an interracial couple ? a black man and a white woman ? lying on the ground kissing, and then rolling over onto a white sheet. The shot then reveals a group of Ku Klux Klan members surrounding the couple and a burning cross.

That video, according to court documents, made the rounds among senior Secret Service agents.

One of the agents who was recently on the detail of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is under investigation for allegedly sending a January 2005 e-mail that included a crude sexual joke about blacks and American Indians.

That agent has since been promoted. It is unclear what disciplinary action, if any, he will face.

Other messages target prominent black Americans, from activists to entertainers.

A 2003 e-mail sent to several senior agents jokes about the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his wife being killed, saying their deaths "certainly wouldn't be a great loss."

Another white senior supervisor, apparently bitter towards the Rev. Al Sharpton and angry at Ruben Studdard for winning "American Idol" in 2003 over Clay Aiken, allegedly wrote, "Reverse discrimination and political correctness are destroying virtually every aspect of American life."

"I think these e-mails confirm what our statistics show," Hogan said. "They confirm the anecdotes that have been told to us by our clients and others, that there is a culture of racism at the Secret Service."

It's not just e-mails ? a noose was recently discovered at a Secret Service training facility outside of Washington, D.C. The service thus far has declined to release pictures of the noose.

Moore said he is not surprised by the e-mails or the noose. Not surprised, but he is angry.

"I don't see anything funny about making a joke about the possible assassination of Jesse Jackson and his wife. I never see the humor in sharing anything about the Klan," he said. "So, there's nothing funny about any of these e-mails. These are not jokes."

What is "the most dismaying," Moore said, is that the e-mails were allegedly circulated among people in the upper levels of the Secret Service.

"These are special agents in charge, assistant directors, deputy directors ? people who have helped set policy. People who determine who gets hired," he said.

"These are the people that sign off on promotion evaluation. These are the people that sign off on disciplinary action. That's the most frightening part of it," Moore said, "Is that these people may express and espouse these types of views and then have the power to deny people certain opportunities in this agency."

But Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren said the allegations of discrimination by Moore and the other black agents have no merit.

"We're very proud of our history, we're very proud of our people and diversity is part of both of those. So we stand strong behind our record of diversity," he said. "Quite frankly, the numbers and the facts don't support the allegations that there has been any discrimination aimed at African-Americans who have sought promotion to any supervisory level within the service. It just frankly doesn't support it."

According to the service, African-Americans are promoted at a faster rate than their white counterparts.

The Secret Service claims the aggrieved black agents are simply trying to embarrass the agency, during an unprecedented presidential campaign that includes an African-American candidate who has a legitimate chance to become president of the United States.

But Moore said he believes the e-mails are proof he faced bias during his 24-year career.

In his early years, he says there were immediate signs black agents were treated differently. Often, he says, they were asked to do a lot of undercover work in the inner city.

"A lot of times, they just assumed because you were black or African-American that you could juke and jive with people in the street, not taking into consideration what your upbringing may have been," Moore said.

And then there was the day when he claims a supervisor used the n-word right in front of him to describe a foreign diplomat.

"There was a manager who spoke the n-word about a person who worked, at the time, for Prime Minister Lyndon Pindling of the Bahamas," Moore said. "He walked between some of our cars and he used the n-word. I assume he forgot I was in the vehicle."

He said the manager later apologized for the remark.

Moore, who grew up in Atlanta, refuses to use the word. "Being from the South ? I've heard it said by people, and I know the word is meant to hurt, so I've never used it playfully, and I just won't say it."

Despite that incident and others, Moore said, he decided to stay at the service because he loved the work.

He said he thought the president's detail would mean a quick jump to higher management, like it had for his white counterparts, but instead, he said he hit a brick wall.

"You know, on the president's detail, there's a succession of assignments you have to go through in order to be promoted, and people were going through those successions at the proper rate," he said. "As I went through, I was moving along at the proper rate. It was just at that last point when I was just about ready to be promoted is when I hit the glass ceiling."

Moore became even more frustrated after heading presidential details for a number of major events like the funeral for King Hussein of Jordan.

"Knowing that the president is going to attend, and actually, four presidents ? President Clinton, President Bush, President Carter and former President Ford attended, so I had four presidents that were all under a protective umbrella that I had built," he said.

Moore said he was told he was the "go-to guy" on such assignments. "At that time," he said, "no one had done five foreign leads like I had. If you had done one foreign lead, you were a made man. If you'd done two, they were definitely going to promote you. I did five, and I got nothing."

Moore claimed that agents with less experience and education were promoted before him. It would take four years for him to get that next promotion.

Attorneys for Moore and the other black agents said the agency's promotion statistics are distorted and that the court overseeing the lawsuit has repeatedly criticized the service for destroying documents. The plaintiffs claim a cover-up ? a charge the service vehemently denies.

More than 300,000 pages of documents have been filed for this one lawsuit, but the service is facing criticism that it's dragging its feet.

"It's a lot of information. It's a lot of documents ? As far as I know, really unprecedented in terms of a discovery demand on a government agency," Zahren said.

As for the e-mails, Zahren said the Secret Service is "very concerned and we are disappointed and to a certain extent, we are embarrassed by those."

"We not only hold our people to generally held standards, we hold them to a higher standard. We always have and so we are concerned. And out of that concern, we certainly took immediate action in investigating them and getting to the bottom of them."

"But again," Zahren said, "they should be held in context. They shouldn't be made to reflect or define either individuals or the Secret Service as an agency."

Zahren said that when agents receive those types of e-mails, they're supposed to alert their supervisor. So far, there is no evidence that happened.

Concerning the noose incident, "There was an immediate inquiry and then ultimately a formal inspection internally that is being wrapped up to gather all the facts," Zahren said.

"There is some question as to whether there was intent, but regardless of intent there should be a sensitivity and a level of sensitivity on the part of our employees that we've always striven to achieve," he added.

Special agent Renee Triplett, who is black and runs the training center where the noose was found, said the agency should not be judged by the mistakes of a few.

"While we're not perfect and maybe our management style don't always hit the perfect mark, I think we do a good job trying to reach that and I think the leadership in this agency has done a good job," she said.

"I didn't get the promotion that I wanted when I wanted," Triplett said. "But did I get it when I was the most qualified candidate or applicant or when I was one of the most qualified? I think I was given a fair chance to be competitive in my peers."

Other black agents ? Moore included ? said that hasn't been their experience.

"If my daughter said she wanted to be a Secret Service agent I would try to discourage her," Moore said. "Because I think it's a difficult environment? But if she is very adamant about it and totally determined, then I would support her. But I would counsel her. Often."

Secret Service officials said they want more diversity and worry these ugly allegations could cripple those efforts, tarnishing the Secret Service star.

Hogan, the attorney for the black agents, said that despite the court battles along the way, the suit is an "opportunity to finally cure what has been a longstanding racist culture" at the Secret Service.

"But everyone can win here," he said. "The Secret Service can win, the leadership can win, my clients can win, if we all come together. Sit down together and come to an agreement here where the Secret Service does the right thing by implementing a fair promotion system."