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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."

Here's what the attorneys say. First, a brief filed on Segar's behalf in March:

"More than thirty years after the commencement of this action, the DEA remains in violation of this Court's orders and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Class, composed of current and former African-American special agents of the DEA, continues to suffer from the DEA's discriminatory policies.

"As this Court first recognized in 1981, since the early 1970s (if not earlier), the DEA has engaged in systemic racial discrimination in its employment practices. Nearly three decades after this Court's initial holding, and despite multiple intervening decisions re-affirming both the DEA's continuing discrimination and Defendants' obligation to implement validated, non-discriminatory promotions procedures, the DEA has still not remedied many of its non-compliant procedures, and it has yet to provide Plaintiffs with any of the individual monetary relief that this Court ordered more than a decade ago.

"The African-American agents of the DEA deserve - and are entitled by law to - the opportunity to compete for promotions secure in the knowledge that they will be evaluated fairly and without respect to race; 33 years after this action began, the DEA must finally implement validated and non-discriminatory promotions procedures, and must compensate Plaintiffs for the past discrimination that they have suffered under the DEA's unlawful promotions procedures."

Government attorneys see things differently. They say Segar's lawyers want the court to find the government "in contempt for not agreeing with their negotiation process, not for non-compliance with Court Orders."

The Justice Department argues that no compensation is due Segar and others because none was ever ordered: "While the [court] Order raised the issue of whether individual relief was warranted, it did not direct that Defendant pay individual relief, let alone specify any particular amount."

Although the case remains open, government lawyers probably would agree with Daniel S. Volchok, an attorney for the plaintiffs, who said there have been improvements at DEA. The changes "have made agents' lives better, and that's directly attributable to Mr. Segar," Volchok added.

Black narcs recognize that. When he goes to meetings of the National Association of Black Narcotic Agents, Segar said "everybody wants to take a picture of Henry Segar."

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