Two black agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms told a Senate committee Friday that Raymond Eugene Rightmyer--the former ATF official who organized annual law enforcement retreats in Tennessee that have been condemned as racist--was known within the agency for insulting black agents.
However, two other ATF agents--one black and one white--defended Rightmyer's conduct at this year's "Good Ol' Boys Roundup." The two men, who attended the event together, said that Rightmyer welcomed them warmly at the May 18-20 gathering and apologized for racist comments made by a handful of whites who were there.
Although Rightmyer declined an invitation to testify, in interviews this week he has insisted that he had nothing to do with racist actions at the event and that he has tried over the years to stop such conduct.
The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was convened after public expressions of outrage in response to media reports about a video, taken by members of an Alabama militia group, that showed racist actions by federal officers at the Tennessee mountain retreat.
On the video--broadcast coast-to-coast earlier this month--federal and local law enforcement officers who gathered last spring in Ocoee, Tenn., were seen wearing T-shirts with racist themes, such as a photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. imposed on a shooting target and murder defendant O.J. Simpson hanging from a noose.
Federal officials who investigated the allegations told the Senate panel that their preliminary findings showed a history of similar activities, including an entrance poster to the 1990 event that read, "Nigger Checkpoint," and the performance of a racist skit by a law officer dressed as a klansman who simulated sodomy on another officer in black face.
Although Rightmyer did not appear at the hearing, he said in a statement released by his lawyer: "Over the 16-year history of this event, I am aware of perhaps three or four isolated instances of racist conduct by a very small number of attendees."
He said that those incidents did not represent the "Good Ol' Boys Roundup" and that he took "steps to ensure that the conduct was not repeated."
The two agents who criticized Rightmyer on Friday said that they were never invited nor had they ever attended any of the roundups. But they told senators that they were vaguely aware that blacks were unwelcome, partly because "the organizer of the roundup, Gene Rightmyer, was known to have racist tendencies," according to Curtis Cooper, a black ATF agent who retired in 1994 after 25 years with the bureau.
For example, Cooper said, before he was sent to supervise the ATF Nashville office in April, 1985, officials in Washington told him that Rightmyer, who worked in the office, had told colleagues: "It would be a cold day in hell, before he worked for a nigger."
Cooper added that, after he was on the job, "Rightmyer presented me with a sketch depicting the devil in hell, with a pitchfork, wearing an overcoat. He [Rightmyer] said something to the effect that 'I guess this is a cold day in hell.' "
Larry D. Stewart, assistant special agent in charge of the bureau's Atlanta office, said that Rightmyer approached him and two other black officers in 1990 during a business-related social event. "Gene Rightmyer approached and, without any provocation . . . stated, 'You were born trash, you'll live trash and die trash,' " Stewart said.
But a very different image of Rightmyer emerged in testimony by Special Agent Cordell Malone Jr., a black ATF agent from Chattanooga, Tenn. Malone told the committee that Rightmyer had invited him to the roundup every year since he joined the agency in 1987. He decided to attend this year at the invitation of John Scott, a white ATF agent and a good friend.
"During the time I was at the roundup, I never felt that I was not welcome or wanted there," Malone said. "On one occasion, Gene Rightmyer came over to me and told me he was glad I finally came to the roundup. He also told me that if I had any problems or needed anything, come to him. Gene also told me if anyone did anything or said anything that offended me, let him know and they would be asked to leave."
Scott, who has attended four of the weekend retreats, said he was confronted this year by four men from Alabama who were upset that he had invited two blacks.
After Scott told Malone and the other black lawman, Robert Goldsten, a Cleveland police officer, about the incident they decided to leave. Scott said that he left the next morning after "I told the people at the campsite what had happened the previous evening and that I had attended my last 'Good Ol' Boys Roundup.' "
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, led the parade of senators expressing outrage at the idea that federal lawmen would attend a racist gathering.
"Those who would participate in such an event, knowing of its racist nature, should not carry a badge, plain and simple," he said. "One purpose of this hearing is to send just that message."
Embarrassed Administration officials representing Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, the FBI, ATF and the Treasury Department said that Treasury Inspector General Valerie Lau is coordinating an interagency investigation and that an independent citizens review panel will oversee her review.
Lau and other investigators are hoping deleted computer files can help them track participation of federal agents in the retreat. "We have recovered information" by resurrecting the files from Rightmyer's computer.
Lau told the committee that shortly after learning of the event last week, she subpoenaed computer files from Rightmyer, who is retired from the ATF and lives in Knoxville, Tenn. She said that when officials arrived to serve the subpoena, "information had been deleted from the computer."
A few days later, she said, she issued a follow-up subpoena and a government computer technician labored to recover deleted material. As a result, she said, "we do have access to some information."
ATF Director John W. Magaw testified that he did not know about racist incidents at the roundup until he saw media accounts.
"Apparently knowledge of the roundup has been fairly widespread within the ATF," Magaw added. "The racial and discriminatory allegations being made are most serious and, if true, should have been dealt with years ago."
Undersecretary of the Treasury Ronald K. Noble told the senators that "disciplinary action will be meted out to those for whom it is warranted."