A federal judge Friday ruled that the FBI is guilty of racial discrimination in employment and promotional opportunities for its 311 Latino agents.
The 90-page ruling by U.S. District Judge Lucius Bunton, while finding generally for the minority agents, exonerated the agency on the issue of religious discrimination. It also held that the FBI did not retaliate against its Latino agents as a class for testifying against the agency in the case.
The judge, however, ruled that there was retaliation individually against Bernardo Matias (Matt) Perez, 49, the agent who originally filed the suit last year. He is the assistant special agent in charge of the El Paso FBI office.
Damages Trial Slated
“The court found a pattern and practice of discrimination in conditions of employment and promotional opportunities as to the plaintiff class,” said attorney Hugo Rodriguez of Albuquerque, N.M., one of two lawyers for the plaintiffs.
Rodriguez said Perez, as an individual, prevailed on “every issue” except that of religion.
Bunton said that a trial to determine damages will be held in November in El Paso. The agents have asked for $5 million in damages and a change in procedures in the way the FBI treats its minority employees.
Bunton was in his headquarters in Midland, Tex., when the ruling was released in El Paso. The 90-page ruling, signed by Bunton in Midland Thursday, was mailed overnight to El Paso for release Friday, but a malfunction in the copying machine at the district clerk’s office in El Paso delayed release of the entire ruling.
The 311 Latino FBI agents contend that they were disciplined too harshly, promoted too rarely and given unpopular assignments. The FBI maintains that since Latinos represent only 4.5% of the agency, simple mathematics has kept them from reaching the top.
About 45 Latino agents defied the FBI’s unwritten rule to maintain public loyalty, offering candid, bitter testimony in the trial. Most said they feared retaliation, which the FBI vehemently said would not take place.
During the nine-day trial in August, Bunton ordered the FBI to ensure that the witnesses would be free from retaliation.
“I am intent upon being sure that the fabric of the bureau is such that there is no racist activity nor discriminatory conduct,” FBI director William Sessions promised on Thursday, “regardless of the outcome of a particular lawsuit.”
The suit, filed in January, 1987, contends that the FBI discriminates against Latino agents on the basis of race, religion and national origin. The ruling in favor of the agents could be a monumental embarrassment for the FBI, which is charged with protecting civil rights.
Antonio Silva, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said statistics are not the reason Latinos have not ascended to high posts in the FBI.
“These individuals are the creme de la creme , and if they cannot break down the barriers (to advancement), then the chances that other individuals with lesser credentials can do so are very slim,” Silva said.
Latinos represent about 8% of the U.S. population, but only 430, or 4.5%, of the FBI’s 9,597 agents are Latino. The agents, however, noted that Latinos are assigned to about 25% of the bureau’s undercover work, considered an unpopular assignment.
No Latino serves in the top two grade levels of the FBI, and only one Latino--who is not a plaintiff in the suit--leads one of the FBI’s 58 field offices. Only one black agent heads a field office, in Philadelphia.
Black Agent Sues
Donald Rochon, a black FBI agent now working in Philadelphia, also is suing the FBI for discrimination. A judge dismissed many of his claims, but Rochon is amending his complaint and plans to pursue his case.
Latino agent Fernando Mata, based in Miami, testified that he was told “that as a person who spoke with an accent and who had dark skin, who looked Latino, that it would be bad for me to represent the FBI.”
Perez, 49, who became an FBI special agent on Sept. 16, 1963, said he was demoted from special agent in charge in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to assistant special agent in charge in Los Angeles and, once there, denied a promotion.
He maintains that the FBI has systematically discriminated against Latinos.
But John Glover, one of three executive assistant directors to Sessions and the bureau’s highest-ranking black, told the Senate Judiciary Committee in May at a joint appearance with Sessions that if there is a problem of racial discrimination, “It is an isolated problem.”