FBI settles racial discrimination suit

April 22, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- The FBI said yesterday that it would settle long-standing charges of racism within the agency by changing the way it promotes and transfers black agents.

"It's a moral victory for all the black agents," said Liz Cassell, a veteran of the FBI's counterintelligence division.

"They made changes in virtually every area that we challenged," said David J. Shaffer, a lawyer representing Ms. Cassell and more than 300 other black agents who challenged the bureau's racial practices last year.

The FBI long has denied charges of institutional racism, and repeated that denial yesterday. However, Joe Davis, assistant director and the bureau's top in-house lawyer, said the actions were needed to correct racial "disparities" in the ranks of the nation's top law enforcement agency.

The FBI agreed in principle to give new jobs or better training to 74 black agents. Six black agents previously denied promotions will receive back pay totaling more than $100,000.

In addition, the FBI said it would change the way it chooses members for elite divisions, such as SWAT and hostage-rescue teams, and review its system for promoting agents.

"Preferential consideration was warranted" for black agents who claimed racism had cost them jobs they deserved, the FBI said in an official statement.

Ms. Cassell, one of 10,443 FBI special agents -- 512 of whom are black -- said in an interview that she hit "a stone wall" when she sought a promotion.

A 15-year FBI veteran, Ms. Cassell has worked since 1981 in the counterintelligence division -- the unit charged with catching spies.

In 1989 and 1990, Ms. Cassell caught and helped convict Frank Nesbitt, a retired military communications officer who pleaded guilty to passing secrets to the former Soviet Union.

But she worked for a decade in counterintelligence without a promotion.

"I felt extreme frustration, a feeling of having bumped my head against a stone wall for years," Ms. Cassell said.

She joined with a group that soon had more than 300 members, nearly two-thirds of all the bureau's black agents, all of whom "were interested in making sure the FBI changed."

Ms. Cassell said the bureau had changed -- slowly -- since she joined the FBI in 1976, four years after the death of J. Edgar Hoover. Historians say the longtime director was unenlightened on racial matters and reluctant to hire black agents, even after the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

"A lot of the old Hooverites have retired," she said. "The newer supervisors today are, I believe, a little better. But the change has been incremental."

In public statements and private actions, FBI Director William S. Sessions, who has led the bureau for 4 1/2 years, has said he aims to do away with discrimination, real or perceived, inside the FBI.

Mr. Sessions last year did not appeal a federal judge's ruling that the FBI had discriminated against Hispanic agents. He also agreed to settle a harassment suit brought by a black agent, Donald Rochon, who had been tormented by white colleagues.

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