Judge Orders FBI Promotion System Reform

Times Staff Writer

In a decision hailed by Latino agents as the death knell of “the good old boy system” in the FBI, a federal judge on Friday ordered the creation of a special outside panel to consider claims of individual agents passed over for promotion.

But FBI officials also praised the judge’s opinion, noting that it was laced with compliments on the bureau’s recent efforts to improve minority job opportunities and that it avoided any monetary award to 300 Latino agents who successfully sued the bureau last year.

The opinion by U.S. District Judge Lucius Bunton in El Paso was anxiously awaited by both sides since he ruled last September that the Latino agents were victims of racial discrimination in career advancement opportunities.


Series of Changes

In the 55-page opinion Friday, Bunton outlined a series of minor organization reforms intended to prevent future discrimination in the promotion of Latinos and other minorities. But he ruled out back pay or automatic promotions for all those involved in the suit.

The class-action case had its origins in a bitter dispute that began in 1982 between the two top officials of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, Richard T. Bretzing and his top assistant, Bernardo (Matt) Perez, who was subsequently transferred to the smaller FBI office in El Paso.

While Bunton agreed last September that Perez had been unfairly punished by the FBI for initiating the lawsuit, the judge stopped short Friday of granting Perez the remedies he has sought in either monetary compensation or career advancement.

Bunton ordered the FBI to promote Perez from his present position as assistant agent-in-charge of the El Paso office to a higher post as agent-in-charge of some other office or some comparable job within the next 45 days.

Perez said Friday he was “very pleased” that Bunton had ordered changes in the process of promoting minority agents, but he expressed disappointment that the judge did not award monetary damages or rule that he should get an even higher position within the FBI.

“That does not thrill me,” he said. “I’m $80,000 in debt because of this suit. I think I should be made at least an assistant director or an executive assistant director. I was a special agent-in-charge 10 years ago (in San Juan, P. R.). To get that position again is not a promotion.”


Sessions Issues Statement

While Perez expressed some unhappiness over Bunton’s ruling, the FBI’s initial reaction was one of cautious conciliation with the court. Although reserving the right to appeal the ruling, FBI Director William S. Sessions issued a moderately worded statement:

“We are looking with care at Judge Bunton’s ruling with an eye toward building further on the many improvements already undertaken in the FBI’s personnel practices. I am pleased that the court took cognizance of changes I have made in the FBI’s career development, language services and equal employment opportunities programs.”

Sessions added: “Of course we are carefully considering the specific changes in FBI programs and policies mandated by the court to assess their impact on the overall operations of the FBI.”

In addition to setting up a three-member panel of non-FBI officials to hear complaints by FBI agents involved in the lawsuit, Bunton ruled that the head of any of the bureau’s 58 field offices should not be allowed to overrule or ignore recommendations for promotion made by local career boards composed of other top local FBI officials.

FBI officials, expressing some puzzlement at the order, said current agency rules already preclude local FBI chiefs from such interference, although they conceded there may have been abuses in the past.

Lawrence G. Lawler, agent-in-charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, said the common practice in Los Angeles is that a career board composed of FBI supervisors recommends a candidate for any new supervisory position. While he is free to recommend someone else, Lawler said he rarely does so.


Reviewed in Washington

The recommendation from Los Angeles is then sent to an FBI career board in Washington that also considers qualified candidates from other offices and makes the final decision, Lawler said.

“In looking over this opinion, that’s already the way I run this office,” Lawler said. “I see nothing in this thing that’s not currently in place in the FBI’s office here.”

While Lawler had no other comment, other FBI officials said they were happy there was no monetary award to the bureau’s Latino agents, contending that any such award would have been harmful to overall morale. There was general approval of the grievance panel as the best possible tool in resolving continuing personnel disputes of those involved in the lawsuit.

Just as there was a tone of conciliation from FBI officials, some of the agents involved in the lawsuit also went out of their way to praise the bureau for instituting reforms in advance of Bunton’s decision.

At a news conference in Los Angeles, FBI agent Paul Magallanes proclaimed the ruling to be a victory for Latino agents and said it was appropriate that the judge issued it on Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican holiday.

Sees Wide Impact

“Judge Bunton is calling for sweeping institutional changes in the FBI,” Magallanes said. “I must emphasize that we are not the only ones who won. The FBI won. And future generations who enter the bureau won.


“To its credit, the bureau did not wait for a ruling before making these changes,” Magallanes added. “It has already begun taking steps in the right direction with several programs.”

In his ruling, Bunton noted that the FBI had already begun to establish its own grievance procedure to handle promotion disputes and separate reforms to monitor incidents of discrimination. He also observed that the bureau has already decided to add minority representatives to career boards.

Bunton described the reforms as “well-intentioned,” but he said that he needed to add more “dramatic” repairs to make the FBI’s future minority promotion practices acceptable under federal law.