The FBI suffered a major embarrassment Friday when a U.S. district judge ruled that hundreds of Latino agents have been discriminated against and regularly assigned to demeaning duties commonly known as the “Taco Circuit.”
The ruling, issued here by U.S. District Judge Lucius D. Bunton, was heralded as a landmark by the FBI agent who filed the initial suit, Bernardo Matias (Matt) Perez, a former top FBI official in Los Angeles now serving as assistant special agent-in-charge of the El Paso office.
“This case proves you can fight City Hall and you can win,” Perez said after reading the ruling. “I hope the FBI will look at this as a challenge to make these changes.”
Although the class-action suit was decided in El Paso, its origins were in Los Angeles, where Perez filed his first discrimination complaint in 1983 during a prolonged dispute with then agent-in-charge Richard T. Bretzing.
Perez was Bretzing’s top assistant for almost two years, and the two men clashed soon after their arrival in Los Angeles in 1982. Bretzing viewed Perez as unqualified for a top job in a large FBI office, and Perez saw Bretzing, a Mormon bishop, as a bigot committed to boosting the careers of fellow Mormons over non-Mormons.
The feud between the two men split the FBI’s Los Angeles office during the early 1980s and erupted publicly after the 1984 espionage arrest of former FBI agent Richard W. Miller, an excommunicated Mormon who had been placed on the FBI’s Soviet counterintelligence squad ahead of a Latino agent.
After Miller’s arrest, Perez amended his complaint against Bretzing to charge religious as well as racial discrimination, claiming that a “Mormon Mafia” within the FBI’s Los Angeles office systematically discriminated against Roman Catholics.
Bunton, in a 95-page ruling, rejected the claim of religious discrimination but noted: “Some of the testimony at trial was probative of the proposition that Mormon supervisors made personnel decisions which favored members of their church at the expense of Hispanic class members.”
In finding that the FBI has discriminated racially against Latinos, Bunton stressed that there was no evidence that the bureau had deliberately set out to discriminate against Latino agents. But he cited examples of Latino FBI agents who have been discriminated against and he called on the bureau’s director, William S. Sessions, to make some immediate changes.
‘Must Be Some Fine-Tuning’
“Corrections are necessary,” the judge wrote. “There must be some fine-tuning of the agency’s relationship with its fine Hispanic members.”
Responding to the judgment in Washington, Sessions said he was disappointed. Although holding out the possibility of an eventual appeal, he restated his position that “discrimination has no place in the FBI” and pledged to increase minority hiring and promotion in the future.
“Regardless of the final outcome of this litigation, it is time to move forward,” Sessions said.
In another response, U.S. Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh pledged that he and Sessions “will use the findings in this case positively to ensure that the FBI and other federal agencies are toeing the line on every basis” to protect against discrimination inside their organizations.
At the FBI’s Los Angeles office, reaction among agents was mixed. One non-Latino agent said a majority of agents were disappointed with the ruling, but a Latino agent said many of his colleagues had privately congratulated him.
Two Agents Tell Pleasure
Two of the 17 Los Angeles agents who were part of the class-action suit, Paul Magallanes and Rudolfo Valadez, appeared at a news conference to say they were pleased with the decision and hopeful that the FBI will not appeal.
“In a way, it’s a sad day for the FBI,” Magallanes said. “We did this for future generations of Hispanics. Now we are trying to put this behind us.”
The court ruling was particularly embarrassing to the FBI because one of its mandates as a branch of the Justice Department is to protect civil rights.
“The Department of Justice is the vanguard to protect against discrimination,” said Hugo Rodriguez, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “This opinion says the Department of Justice discriminates.”
Rodriguez also said he believed that the FBI case was only the first of many in which Latinos will charge discrimination. He said employees from a number of other federal agencies, including the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, had already contacted him about possible suits.
Complaint Filed in 1983
The long road leading to Friday’s decision began in October, 1983, when Perez, then a 20-year veteran of the agency, filed his first discrimination complaint in Los Angeles.
More than three years later, in January, 1987, he filed his lawsuit against the bureau. The suit was eventually joined as a class action by 309 of the FBI’s other 425 Latino agents, who contended that they were disciplined harshly, promoted too rarely and given unpopular assignments.
Bunton found that Latinos were in practice given unpleasant assignments that were rarely meted out to their white counterparts. These included being assigned to wiretaps that meant 12-hour days but were of little importance when it came to promotions within the agency.
He also said the evidence showed that Latinos were most commonly placed as translators, even if they wished to enter some other type of investigative work where language skills were not a factor. Bunton cited as an example an agent with a Latino surname who spoke only rudimentary Spanish. Though a law school graduate, the agent spent six years on Spanish language special assignments and was turned down for nine in-service training programs.
The ruling said some witnesses testified to having performed 20 to 25 wiretaps lasting a minimum of 30 days each and never observing one non-Latino with similar duties. Meanwhile, he wrote, Latino linguists may receive letters of appreciation from superiors but “fewer successes on the important indices that lead to promotion, closed cases and informant development.
“An agent who travels the ‘Taco Circuit’ is often unavailable when special training opportunities arise,” the judge wrote. “A frequent complaint supported by the preponderance of the evidence is that an Hispanic agent with five years of bureau tenure who has ridden the ‘Taco Circuit’ may not have the experience of an Anglo on duty for two years.”
Throughout the case, the FBI had cited “needs of the bureau” as reasons for assigning Latinos to various duties. But Bunton took issue with that, saying that “needs of the bureau” was a highly subjective term and that such things as transfers are “highly susceptible to bargaining with superiors and subjective determinations.”
FBI Expense Estimated
In a press conference after the ruling, Perez’s lawyers estimated that the FBI had spent more than $1 million on the case.
Antonio Silva, one of the Perez lawyers, said that he expected the FBI to appeal but that, even so, there was reason for celebration.
“It can only be received as a thunderous victory,” he said.
Bunton set a hearing to determine damages for Nov. 28 in El Paso. The Latino agents have asked for $5 million in damages and changes in FBI hiring procedures.
J. Michael Kennedy reported from El Paso and William Overend from Los Angeles. Staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow in Washington also contributed to this story.