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$4.7 Million OKd to Settle ATF Bias Suit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the richest settlement of its kind involving government workers, a federal judge Tuesday gave tentative approval to payment of $4.7 million in compensatory damages and back pay to 241 current and former black agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Both sides hailed the settlement, which ends a class-action lawsuit filed six years ago, as insurance that ATF will make much-needed reforms in promotion and hiring practices. The agency, a unit of the Treasury Department, long has been the target of racial discrimination complaints.

ATF Director John W. Magaw said the agreement “is a fair settlement that recognizes that the class members had grievances that had to be resolved.” Changes called for under the agreement will make the agency a better place to work and will guarantee that people are chosen for leadership positions “regardless of race, ethnicity or gender,” he said.

David J. Shaffer, a Washington attorney who filed the lawsuit, said that the ATF settlement would provide as much as $20,000 per agent, although the figure may vary. Black agents must apply for compensation based on “a detailed justification identifying the specific type of harm claimed and include all supporting documentation,” the agency said.

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According to Shaffer and others, the settlement will require ATF to revise its career development system for special agents, including performance assessments, training, bonus awards and discipline.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth scheduled a hearing for Sept. 12 on final approval. He would then monitor compliance for four years while changes in agency employment practices are implemented.

Last year ATF was rocked by reports that South Carolina agents of the ATF had organized a three-day whites-only retreat, known as the “Good Ol’ Boys Roundup,” where racist epithets and slogans were rampant.

A subsequent investigation by the Treasury Department’s inspector general found “no credible evidence that any Treasury employee engaged in overtly racist acts.” But Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin ordered an inquiry into whether 31 unnamed law enforcement officers should be disciplined for their participation in the event.

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“Simply put, new rules will make clear that we won’t tolerate abjectly racist or biased conduct on or off duty and that we wish not to hire people who have engaged in racist or biased conduct before seeking a job with Treasury,” Rubin said in his statement in April.

At the same time, ATF has been forced to defend itself against complaints of black Southern ministers that agents who interviewed them about recent burnings of their churches asked rude questions about their own backgrounds and finances.

In a statement Tuesday, ATF said it “already is a very different workplace” than 10 years ago when complaints of racial bias first arose. “Almost 10% of ATF’s special agents are African American and representation in the highest ranks has increased from approximately 3% in 1987 to 8% in 1996,” the agency said.

“This agreement will cement these gains and lay a firm foundation for future progress . . . [but] no provision of the settlement should be interpreted as constituting a quota.”

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The suit was filed in 1990 by agents Larry Stewart of Washington and Mark Jones of Trenton, N.J.--later joined by 13 other black agents--who alleged discrimination in employment practices on behalf of all of ATF’s black agents.

Stewart told reporters that the settlement “will ensure equal advancement opportunity for all ATF employees . . . and means that those of us in the field can stay focused on our jobs.”

As part of the agreement, an outside contractor will design and carry out new promotion assessment policies, officials said. In addition, “objective criteria will be developed for selections for awards, training, transfers and special team assignments,” they said.


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