Bucking the System

UPDATED 05/22/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/22/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

In February 1999, Special Agent Reginald "Ray" Moore was given the biggest assignment in his 16-year career with the U.S. Secret Service. He had only 36 hours to ready a team of agents that would be guarding four Presidents—Clinton, Bush, Carter and Ford—while they attended King Hussein's funeral in Amman, Jordan. "It was possible that Osama bin Laden," the alleged Saudi terrorist, "would be lying in wait," Moore says. As it turned out, there were no nasty surprises, and Moore was soon savoring the success of having seen all four Presidents home safely.

But according to Moore, that satisfaction quickly vanished when the 41-year-old African-American agent was denied promotion to No. 1 Whip, in charge of a White House protection squad, and the job went instead to a white agent with no experience on a presidential detail. "That was humiliating," Moore says. "I felt betrayed." Then in June, he was reassigned to Dallas. Stunned, he made a wrenching decision: to sue the 135-year-old agency, where only 9.2 percent of the special agents are black. Until then a model of circumspection, Moore now says of his white supervisors, "These are good ol' boys in suits."

On May 3, nine other former and current black agents joined Moore in filing a federal lawsuit in Washington, D.C., charging the elite federal police agency with racial discrimination since at least 1974. The suit alleges that blacks have been passed over in favor of less qualified white agents, given dead-end assignments, subjected to racial slurs and unfairly disciplined. It asks for $300,000 in damages and back pay for each of the eligible current and former black agents. "Their job is to put their bodies in front of a bullet," says John Relman, lawyer for one of the agents who is suing. "It's incredible that at this level of law enforcement there is not a level playing field."

The allegations "shocked" the Secret Service, according to a spokeswoman, who said two of seven assistant directors—the third highest-ranking job in the Service—are African-American. The Service, facing its first class-action discrimination suit, cannot comment about Moore or his work. But in an internal memo, Secret Service Director Brian Stafford has expressed dismay at the allegations and added that the Service, which hired its first black individual in 1956, tolerates no discrimination.

Moore insists his experience refutes that. In July 1998, he says, he was made acting No. 1 Whip, in charge of managing a team of agents protecting the President. Holding the interim position had virtually assured promotion in the past, he says, and during five years on presidential detail, he supervised advance work for 20 domestic presidential trips and five foreign visits, to Poland, Brazil, China, Jordan and South Africa. Moore claims he ranked 40th on the Secret Service list of 329 special agents eligible for promotion to management posts last year, including 140 who were promoted. "He is just an awesome guy," says retired Special Agent Alonzo Webb, 50. "You couldn't find a better agent."

Coming from a prominent middle-class Atlanta family, Moore says he rarely encountered discrimination before joining the Secret Service in 1984. The third of five children of an auto-factory worker and his wife, a homemaker, Moore went to West Georgia College in Carrollton and thought of one day making a career in politics. At school he met and married Burnice Freeman, now a 39-year-old schoolteacher and mother of their two daughters. Graduating in 1982 with a degree in criminal justice, he joined the Secret Service two years later and soon headed to Miami to work undercover on forgery, fraud and counterfeiting cases. "If" you're black, you go to the streets," says Moore, who notes that as a middle-class black man he was no better suited for such work than a middle-class white would have been.

Until last year, Moore had risen steadily through the Service's ranks, and some friends now worry that he has sabotaged his career. But Moore, who lives in suburban Dallas, says his resolve has only grown stronger, and he hopes his suit will eventually restore integrity to the agency he has revered. It surely isn't about the extra $2,500 a year he would have earned if promoted, he says. The point, he maintains, is that "once you have broken the glass ceiling, you can try to be director one day."

Bruce Frankel
Bob Stewart in Dallas and Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C.

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