By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 19, 2008
A federal magistrate judge has ruled that the U.S. Secret Service "made a mockery" of long-standing rules by failing to preserve, concealing and even destroying evidence sought by 10 African American current and former employees in a racial discrimination case.
In an opinion filed late Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Washington, Judge Deborah A. Robinson effectively barred the agency from presenting a defense in the class-action lawsuit filed in 2000.
Robinson called the penalty an appropriate sanction for years of delay because the Secret Service's conduct "prejudiced Plaintiffs' ability to conduct meaningful discovery and prepare to address the merits of their claims."
The judge's ruling effectively lowers the burden of proof for plaintiffs and limits the amount of evidence government lawyers can use to defend the agency against allegations that supervisors routinely harassed black agents and refused to promote them to management positions.
Robinson earlier sanctioned the agency three times for being slow to search for documents as directed by the court and to turn over racially charged e-mails shared by white Secret Service supervisors. Jennifer I. Klar, a lawyer with Relman & Dane, which is representing the plaintiffs pro bono, said the ruling "sends the clear message that no entity, not even the United States government or the elite Secret Service, is above the law."
A spokesman for the Secret Service called the decision "expected" given Robinson's prior rulings. But he said the agency "wholly disagrees" with Robinson's findings and would appeal.
Secret Service spokesman Edwin M. Donovan said the agency has "made every attempt to respond fully and completely to all discovery requests," turning over 22 million documents, asking nearly 300 former employees if they kept relevant records and paying a contractor $2 million to search 350 employee computers and the agency server.
A trial date for the case, Moore v. Chertoff, has not been set.