Black narcotics agent's unresolved 1977 bias suit illustrates frustrations of discrimination claims

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2010; 12:28 AM

It's been 40 years since Henry W. Segar was hired by the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, but he remembers those days clearly, if not always fondly.

Now almost 70 years old, Segar is far removed from his undercover days buying heroin, PCP and LSD. His name, however, remains linked to the agency. Segar, long retired, is the named plaintiff in a racial discrimination class-action lawsuit against the government. It was first filed almost 34 years ago and remains in litigation.

The case illustrates how protracted, complicated and frustrating racial discrimination lawsuits can be.

Many things have changed since Jan. 14, 1977, when the case was filed. The Bureau is now the Drug Enforcement Administration. The lead defendant was former attorney general Edward H. Levi. He died a decade ago. When the case began, Peter B. Bensinger was DEA administrator, a job he left almost 30 years ago.

Now the named defendant is Eric H. Holder Jr., the current attorney general and a black man, as is his boss, President Obama, who was just a kid when Segar became one of the agency's few black agents.

"The current litigation has had a long history, which has been recounted many times, and any attempt to detail a complete account of each and every fact in this over thirty-three year old case might fill volumes," said a recent government memorandum seeking to end the case.

Repeated recountings, however, don't make the case any clearer or its end any closer. Decades of documents littered with legal jargon - "pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(a)(I) and Local Rule 7 (m)" - almost make this unending case unfathomable.

But some points come through clearly. Lawyers at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr say the DEA should be held in contempt for not following court orders. The Justice Department says "the Agency has complied with all of the directives mandated by this Court," that being the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

This all began when Segar and a few other black agents got fed up with the way they were treated on the job. He was a Marine in Vietnam and then assistant chief of security at Alabama State College before being recruited by Uncle Sam.

There were only a few other black recruits in his academy class, he recalled in a telephone interview from his home in Tampa.

"At the time, they didn't particularly care about having black agents, but we made it through," he said.

Once his training was done, Segar said, he and other black agents spent most of the time "risking your life" doing dangerous undercover work. Yet, "when time for promotion came," he added, "the white boy got the promotion."

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