Denny's bias suit may overshadow racial problems in the Secret Service Agents expected to come forward at House hearing

August 22, 1993|By Jeff Leeds | Jeff Leeds,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- When six black Secret Service agents accused a Denny's restaurant in Annapolis of denying them service earlier this year, the lawyers representing them called the incident "a remarkably clear-cut" discrimination case.

The six black agents sitting together at one table were ignored by the same waitress who promptly served groups of white agents at other tables with first and second helpings.

When the black agents filed their lawsuit against the Denny's restaurant chain in May, they maintained that they were sitting together simply because they had worked together for several months.

While the circumstances of the incident may illustrate a clear legal case, some African-American Secret Service agents say the image of black agents sitting apart from their colleagues may come to symbolize a much more nebulous issue -- race relations within the agency itself.

Several black agents alleged in interviews that the agency's supervisors -- prompted either by racial attitudes or by an unconscious old-boy network resistant to change -- discriminate against them in hiring and promotion practices and relegate them to only menial tasks.

Though the Secret Service -- the elite Treasury Department detail charged with protecting high government officials and rooting out white collar crime -- has largely escaped the claims of racial discrimination that have dogged the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies, nine current and former African-American agents interviewed by The Sun say the agency is troubled by the same kind of problems.

Hearing this fall

The problems may get a lot more public attention this fall when some agents are expected to come forward at a House hearing and publicly criticize the agency for the first time.

"There are times when I've cried getting up in the morning knowing I had to come to this job. I hate that I'm even associated with it," said an African-American agent based in a city outside Washington who says his white supervisors have intentionally delayed or withheld promotions from him while giving promotions regularly to white agents.

"Injustice is imposed through the system," he said. "You're not always able to prove it, but it's there."

Secret Service Director John Magaw and Deputy Director Guy Caputo declined to be interviewed, but other agents -- black and white -- say discrimination is not a serious problem at the agency and shrug off challenges to its vaunted reputation as a law enforcement unit that strives for perfection and high ideals.

Charles Gittens, the first black agent hired by the Secret Service, said he did not have any problems with discrimination during his 25 years of service.

Defending agency

"The Secret Service has made a good effort and has certainly recognized the need to rectify what needs to be dealt with," said Mr. Gittens, who retired from the agency in 1980 and now works in the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, which hunts down Nazi war criminals.

His view was echoed by Tim McCarthy, the white Secret Service agent credited with saving President Ronald Reagan's life during a 1981 assassination attempt. Mr. McCarthy, now a supervisor in charge of the Chicago field office, brushed off suggestions that African-American employees are mistreated, saying the agency is "well represented with minority and female agents."

But some current and former Secret Service agents painted a different picture, though most were reluctant to cite specific incidents that might identify them or other agents. Several refused to be interviewed because they feared reprisals, and those that would talk insisted on hiding their identities.

The agents acknowledged that the Secret Service has made an effort to hire more nonwhites in recent years, but said the agency continues to give white agents better pay and rank.

African-American agents also complained about the "cliquish" management of the agency, from which they are largely excluded. The first African-American assistant director, Hubert Bell, was promoted to his rank just three years ago.

Mr. Bell refused to talk about race relations at the agency, but a former agent described the Secret Service as "a golden boy organization. . . . Promotions don't necessarily come from the merit process." The majority of promotions, he said, are awarded to those "who butter up the boss, become loyal to the fullest degree to the supervisor, and are part of the clique that's in control."

While the agency has hired more minorities in recent years, he said "it was done because they were forced to do it, and that doesn't have the same weight as if you did it because you knew it was right."

Of the Secret Service's 3,150 special agents and uniformed officers, 355 -- roughly 11 percent -- are African-American. Another 176 are members of other minority groups.

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