WASHINGTON -- Officials of the Federal Bureau of Investigation have opened negotiations with attorneys for black agents who have threatened to file a class-action suit accusing the FBI of being a longtime practitioner of racial discrimination.
The aim of the negotiations, as one of the attorneys put it, is to produce a "settlement package" that would wipe out a backlog of theagents' individual complaints by offering them specific remedies -- promotions and back pay, for example -- and that also would produce changes in the bureau's personnel practices and procedures.
The agents have threatened to file the class-action suit, they say, because some of their complaints have been pending for more than a year.
The first working session between the agents' attorneys and bureau officials was held Monday, following a closed meeting between the officials and more than 200 black agents last Friday.
At the Friday meeting, about half of the bureau's 474 black agents from throughout the country aired their grievances and frustrations before top-level bureau officials. The agents were invited to Washington by FBI Director William S. Sessions after he reportedly heard that seven black agents were considering a class-action suit.
Mr. Sessions met with the seven agents and their attorneys at the Friday meeting, and an agreement was reached to continue the meetings with the aim of eventually producing the settlement package.
FBI spokesman Thomas F. Jones -- the bureau's highest-ranking black official as an inspector who directs its public affairs office -- described Mr. Sessions yesterday as "committed" to resolving the agents' grievances.
Since his appointment in 1987, Mr. Sessions has enlarged the staffof the bureau's equal employment opportunity office. But an FBI report last week said that there were 122 equal opportunity complaints pending -- half of them said to be at least a year old.
Lizzie P. Cassell, an agent in the FBI's Washington office and spokeswoman for the black agents who attended Friday's talks, said afterward that she was "encouraged and hopeful" about the prospects for resolving the agents' complaints without taking the bureau to court.
But another black agent, speaking only if he could be assured of anonymity, said yesterday that there was "general disappointment" at the Friday meeting.
"You can't blame them -- they've endured all of this for years," said Joseph Sellers, an attorney of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, a pro bono firm that is co-counsel for the agents.
Nevertheless, Mr. Sellers said he was "encouraged" by the beginning of the negotiations. "I've litigated 25 class-action suits, and I've never had the head of the agency -- or the corporation -- come to me beforehand and say, 'I'd like to work this out,' " Mr. Sellers said.
But he also said he would reserve a decision on whether to go ahead with a class-action suit until he saw what the negotiations produced.
Researcher Roman Ponos of The Sun's Washington Bureau contributed to this article.