The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Secret Service agrees to pay $24 million in decades-old race-bias case brought by black agents

Then-acting Director of the United States Secret Service Joseph Clancy (2nd right) arrives to brief Senate Judiciary Committee staff members in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill October 7, 2014. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Secret Service agreed Tuesday to pay $24 million to settle a two-decade-old case in which more than 100 black agents alleged that the agency fostered a racist culture and routinely promoted white agents over more qualified African Americans, according to documents filed in court and interviews with representatives of both sides.

As part of the deal, which is the result of a push in the waning days of the Obama administration, the agency admits to no wrongdoing or institutional bias.

But the payments to the agents — including lump sums as high as $300,000 each to the original eight plaintiffs — are intended to remedy the sting of the discrimination the agents say they suffered and the job opportunities they lost, according to interviews with representatives from both sides.

Jennifer Klar, the lead attorney for the black agents, described her clients as thrilled with a result they hope will prevent future discrimination in the agency.

“At long last . . . black Secret Service agents will not be constrained by the glass ceiling that held back so many for so long,” Klar said.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, whose department includes the agency, said in a statement that the resolution was “simply the right thing to do.”

“I am pleased that we are able to finally put this chapter of Secret Service history behind us,” said Johnson, who directed his staff last year to take a fresh look at resolving the case. “Had the matter gone to trial, it would have required that we re-live things long past, just at a time when the Secret Service is on the mend.”

Secret Service Director Joseph P. Clancy described the pending settlement in a conference call with former directors Tuesday afternoon and then sent an agency-wide message to the staff late Tuesday night.

“While the Secret Service takes all allegations in this case seriously, the organization has, and continues to be, committed to a fair and transparent promotion process,” said spokeswoman Catherine Milhoan. “It is time to move forward rather than look back to remnants of the past.”

The settlement talks, driven largely by Johnson, carry symbolic power coming at the end of an eight-year period in which the Secret Service’s primary job was protecting the country’s first black president. It also follows a turbulent period for the agency, which suffered a series of embarrassing miscues in recent years and endured an overhaul of its senior management.

The race bias case centered on black agents who repeatedly bid for promotions from 1995 to 2005 and were turned down in favor of whites. Often the white agents chosen had less experience and lower performance ratings, according to the plaintiffs. Ray Moore, the lead plaintiff, had been a member of President Bill Clinton’s detail and had bid 200 times for promotion over the years without success. Moore had trained several of the white agents who leapfrogged him.

The suit was first filed when Clinton was president. But two presidents and four directors had passed the job of resolving the messy legal fight on to their successors.

Some of the evidence discovered in the course of the case portrayed the Secret Service of the 1990s and 2000s as a workplace that tolerated racist jokes and slurs. White supervisors engaged in racist banter — and black agents were warned not to complain about it or they could hurt their careers, according to the plaintiffs.

Black agents said they heard bosses use the n-word word to describe black people, including foreign leaders the Secret Service was supposed to be protecting.

As part of the deal, the Secret Service has agreed to change its long-standing promotion process by considering multiple candidates for each position and keeping records of factors for making promotions.

The agency also agreed to create a hotline for agents to report bias, and to keep track of racial-bias complaints made against supervisors when considering them for promotion.

The elite law enforcement agency responsible for the president’s safety had long rejected the lawsuit’s central claim that it created a “glass ceiling” that kept black agents relegated to lower rungs.

Two federal judges overseeing the case repeatedly sanctioned the Secret Service for failing to provide relevant documents to the black agents, who sought information about the promotion process.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson wrote a scalding 51-page opinion in 2008 that cast the Secret Service as a defiant agency and said the case was marked primarily by the service’s recalcitrance. She found the Secret Service had repeatedly stalled, and even destroyed potential evidence that could have helped the black agents’ claim.