FBI agent reaffirms claims of job discrimination

Michael DoyleMcClatchy Newspapers

The top FBI agent in Washington state says job discrimination against her has continued in the nearly two years since she first sued the bureau.

Laura M. Laughlin, the special agent-in-charge of the FBI’s Seattle field office, contends in a new legal filing that discrimination has cost her multiple opportunities in other cities, including Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington. The denied promotions newly alleged by Laughlin are on top of other lost opportunities she cited in her original lawsuit filed in 2011.

“The FBI has consistently and intentionally refused to promote (Laughlin) because of her gender,” Laughlin’s attorney, David Wachtel, wrote in an Aug. 15 court filing, adding that officials also undermined Laughlin “because she has opposed the FBI’s gender-based and race-based discrimination against herself and others.”

As special agent-in-charge, Laughlin oversees the Seattle office, as well as nine satellite locations in Tacoma, Olympia, Richland and elsewhere. Her team of some 300 agents and support personnel has regularly handled high-profile cases, such as the investigation of Ponzi scheme operator Jose L. Nino de Guzman Jr., who pleaded guilty in Seattle last month to wire fraud and money laundering.

“Laura is in a position that very few women have reached in the FBI,” Wachtel said in an interview Tuesday, “but, ultimately, she hit a glass ceiling.”

In its own legal filings, the FBI has denied Laughlin’s claims of discrimination and retaliation. But these are not the only time the bureau has faced similar complaints. More broadly, Laughlin’s case illuminates the kind of subsurface obstacles that newly confirmed FBI Director James Comey must navigate once he’s sworn in Sept. 4.

“The FBI,” Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee at his July confirmation hearing, “has to be seen as the good guys and the good gals in this country.”

A former Bush administration Justice Department official, Comey will be replacing FBI Director Robert Mueller, who has led the bureau since September 2001. The job will put Comey in charge of nearly 36,000 employees, of whom 15,560 are women.

The bureau’s special agents remain predominantly male. Of 13,785 special agents, about 2,600 are women. As of March of this year, 13 of the FBI’s 56 U.S.-based special agents-in-charge were women. New promotions have occurred since then; last week, Mueller named Monica M. Miller as special agent-in-charge of the Sacramento, Calif., field office.

While Comey was not asked about gender issues at his confirmation hearing, he acknowledged that he will be inheriting some potential workforce problems. Among them, he said, are “issues dealing with whistleblower retaliation (that) must be addressed as they threaten to undermine the hard work of all the faithful employees at the FBI.”

Last year, records show, 98 Equal Employment Opportunity internal complaints were filed with the FBI.

Sometimes, employee disgruntlement spurs lawsuits.

In 2010, several dozen current and retired FBI special agents sued the bureau claiming that a term-limits policy governing squad supervisors discriminated against those over age 40. A D.C.-based federal judge dismissed the suit last year. But Jane Turner, a former FBI special agent, won a 2007 whistleblower and discrimination case that ultimately cost the bureau more than $1.3 million in judgment costs and attorneys fees, according to the National Whistleblowers Center.

In a series of Equal Employment Opportunity administrative complaints, and in her recently updated lawsuit, Laughlin says bureau officials selected lesser-qualified individuals for jobs she deserved. She blames age and gender discrimination, as well as retaliation

In Laughlin’s original 2011 lawsuit, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., the University of Pennsylvania graduate cited 10 jobs she says she should have gotten. In her updated lawsuit, Laughlin adds four other positions she says she was denied in the past two years, including assistant director-in-charge of the Los Angeles Division and assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division at the bureau’s headquarters. As a result, she is the nation’s most senior special agent-in-charge.

The FBI, in a legal filing, declared that it has “conducted itself in a lawful and non-discriminatory fashion.” As a matter of policy, the bureau does not generally comment on pending litigation.

In February, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates rejected Laughlin’s age discrimination claim with the observation that “pressure to retire, without more, does not constitute objectively tangible harm.” Laughlin turned 55 last year. Bates also dismissed Laughlin’s hostile work environment claims.

“She has not alleged conduct that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to state a plausible hostile work environment claim,” Bates reasoned, adding that the alleged acts “span a period of several years and were relatively infrequent.”

Bates, however, said the Laughlin could proceed with her sex discrimination and retaliation claims. Wachtel, Laughlin’s attorney, said the case is not likely to end soon.

By Michael Doyle
McClatchy Washington Bureau