The U.S. Secret Service has agreed to pay $24 million and make a series of reforms to its promotion system to settle a lawsuit involving more than 100 African-American agents who said they were discriminated against because of their race.
The class-action lawsuit dates back to 2000 when an initial group of 10 agents alleged the Secret Service exhibited racial discrimination in deciding who was hired, promoted to a higher position, transferred to another office, given bonuses, and how people were disciplined for wrongdoing.
Lead plaintiff Reginald Moore worked at the Secret Service for more than 20 years, and alleged in the suit that between 1999 and 2002 he applied for more than 180 promotions without being selected. He was later promoted twice, but said those moves only happened after he was transferred, filed a complaint and a lawsuit.
Many of the other plaintiffs alleged similar experiences, including being promoted only after bringing legal action. A 2006 court document says top officials long ignored frequent complaints.
"The Secret Service has failed to protect its African-American Special Agents from racial discrimination in virtually every aspect of their employment. Discrimination against African-American Agents in the Secret Service has become part of the fabric of the agency and has spanned several decades," the plaintiffs said.
The settlement agreement filed Tuesday in a federal court in Washington says the exact payments to the agents have not been decided, but will be capped at $300,000 per person.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, whose department includes the Secret Service, said the settlement is "the right thing to do," and noted that the agency in charge or protecting the president and investigating financial crimes has made reforms.
"I am pleased that we are able to finally put this chapter of Secret Service history behind us. 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," Johnson said in a statement.
The promotion system, as outlined in court documents, starts with agents being assigned a score based on their written and oral communication skills, ability to lead and direct others, and their ability to analyze problems and recommend solutions.
Those scores are then compiled into a list of those best qualified for the promotion, though having the top score does not mean that person automatically gets the job. Instead, a senior official in the relevant section of the agency makes a recommendation to a panel of other senior leaders about who should be chosen, and the panel in turn makes a final recommendation to the director of the Secret Service.
The settlement details changes that have already happened to the first step, the scoring system, based on the recommendations of outside experts. It notes that the plaintiffs have reviewed the changes and found them satisfactory, and that even more improvements are being sought.
The second phase, involving the actual selection of who gets promoted, will now get a similar revamp under the settlement, again with input from experts outside the agency.
The advisory board making the final recommendations for promotions will also now be required to document the process for everyone they consider. That will include noting why each person was initially picked from the list of best qualified candidates, the reasons for not picking those who ultimately do not get the promotion, and the reasons behind selecting the person who did get the final recommendation for the job.
The Secret Service will also retain an outside expert to analyze data from various stages of the initial scoring process to determine if any step has an adverse effect on African-American candidates versus their white colleagues, and if so, ways to address the system.
By 2018, the agency also agreed under the settlement to incorporate unconscious bias training into the diversity training it gives to its agents.
President Barack Obama issued an order in October instructing federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, to expand that type of training in order to promote diversity and inclusion among the national security workforce.
"As the United States becomes more diverse and the challenges we face more complex, we must continue to invest in policies to recruit, retain, and develop the best and brightest from all segments of our population," Obama said.