Secret Service Long Plagued By Racism And Sexism, Agents Allege

After the prostitution scandal, many wondered if the agency suffered from deep-seated cultural problems. Which is exactly what a group of black agents — including Paula Reid, the woman who blew the whistle on the scandal — have been alleging for over a decade.

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Agents accompany President Obama in Florida.

The Secret Service’s new head of South American operations — the woman who blew the whistle on a prostitution scandal rocking the agency — was also among the black Secret Service agents who filed a class action lawsuit alleging that they were systematically passed over for promotions because of institutionalized racism within the agency. The suit by the agent, Paula Reid, and her colleagues paints a picture of exactly the kind of “macho culture” invoked by, say, a night of haggling over cash with Colombian prostitutes.

Reid, who is black, gave a statement in the 2000 lawsuit, Moore vs. Chertoff, alleging that black agents were given lesser assignments than their white coworkers. She also told USA Today in 1997 that her supervisors often overlooked her in favor of male agents.

Last week, CNN asked “whether a strong macho element in the culture of the U.S. Secret Service could pose a threat to security.” But it looks like Reid already knew the answer to that question — she just wasn’t in a position to help fix it until she entered her new role.

Pedro Mendoza / AP

The Hotel Caribe, where agents allegedly brought prostitutes.

An updated version of the 2000 suit, filed with the US District Court of DC in 2006, alleges that promotions at the agency were decided by a “good old boys network” that kept black agents out of top jobs. And “good old boys” isn’t a metaphor — in the Eighties and Nineties, white agents actually joined other government employees an annual event called the “Good Ol’ Boys Roundup,” where they participated in activities like “the posting of racist signs like ‘Nigger check point,’ a simulated lynching of a black man from a tree, and a host of racist skits and songs.” The Roundup also elected a “Redneck of the Year,” a dubious title held by at least one Secret Service agent. And it was apparently a networking and professional development opportunity — many Roundup attendees were later promoted to senior positions with the agency.

The lawsuit has been working its way through the courts for twelve years now, leaving a variety of unsavory details in its wake. A series of emails between senior Secret Service agents became public in 2008 — they included sexual jokes about black and American Indian people; a message titled “Harlem Spelling Bee” that listed supposed “black” definitions of words; and a video clip of an interracial couple being surrounded by Ku Klux Klan members. Desmond Hogan, a lawyer for the suit’s plaintiffs, said the emails confirmed that “there is a culture of racism at the Secret Service.”

MANUEL PEDRAZA / Getty Images

The Pley Club, where the agents and prostitutes may have met.

There may have been a culture of sexism as well. Agent Camilla Simms told Newsweek in 2008 that the Service had distributed calendars featuring two agents, a white man and a black woman. But in her office, several of the white agents covered up the black woman’s face with paper. She said, “I was the only black female agent there at the time. As a police detective, I was given the opportunity to shine. Then I came to the Secret Service and I felt like I had the plague.”

Reid has since left the suit, along with several other original plaintiffs. But through her role in the Colombia scandal, she may be changing Secret Service culture from the inside. According to the Washington Post, she was the one who rounded up the 11 implicated agents and sent them home, as well as notifying higher-ups of their alleged misconduct. Such decisive action is apparently typical of her approach. A former colleague told the Post, “If every boss was Paula Reid, the Secret Service would never have a problem. It would be a lot more boring, but never a problem.” And another agent said her reaction to the agents’ behavior was no surprise: “You did it in her house, so you better know she’s going to come down hard.”

KEVIN LAMARQUE / Reuters

Agents with Obama.

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