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Email to Obama's Secret Service choice part of racism lawsuit

U.S. President Barack Obama walks with U.S. Secret Service agents as he prepares to board Air Force One at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia b
U.S. President Barack Obama walks with U.S. Secret Service agents as he prepares to board Air Force One at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia b

By Tabassum Zakaria and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration is moving ahead with its choice for a new Secret Service director - former assistant director David O'Connor - after reviewing documents in a lawsuit that charges top agency officials with condoning racial discrimination, according to two sources familiar with the process.

That lawsuit had been languishing in federal court until last week, when U.S. District Judge Richard Roberts certified the class of 120 agents who say they were denied promotion because of race, citing statistical evidence of discrimination. That move increases the chances that the case will go to trial and that O'Connor and other officials will be called to testify.

The White House decided to bring O'Connor out of retirement to lead the agency, where he rose through the ranks to assistant director for investigations under former director Mark Sullivan who retired last month.

O'Connor, who is white, worked at the agency for more than 25 years and retired last year.

O'Connor's name first surfaced in the discrimination lawsuit in 2008. The matter was reviewed internally at the Secret Service and no action was taken, one source said.

Records introduced in the lawsuit included racially charged emails found during a court-ordered search of thousands of agency paper records. O'Connor's response to one of the emails sent to him indicated that he intended to forward it to a fellow agent, but his attorney told the New York Times in 2008 that O'Connor never sent it.

Attorneys for eight black agents who filed suit against the Secret Service for discriminatory promotion practices cited the email and a number of others passed among high-ranking officials as evidence of an office culture in which racial slurs and offensive comments were common.

In court papers, they cite "a longstanding culture of racism that has permeated - and continues to permeate - even the highest levels of the Secret Service ranks."

Jennifer Klar, an attorney for the agents, declined comment.

The White House is expected to announce O'Connor's appointment in coming days. Sources familiar with the appointment said that notice of O'Connor's selection was sent to Secret Service offices this week.

O'Connor did not return a phone call on Wednesday. The Secret Service declined comment on ongoing litigation. Thomas Wright, who represented O'Connor when the email surfaced in 2008, also declined comment in an email.

The White House has declined to comment on a Reuters report that O'Connor would be named to the job and also declined this week to comment on its review of his record.

Complaints about racist comments and discriminatory practices among senior Secret Service officials have gotten wide attention since the lawsuit was originally filed in 2000.

O'Connor was a former assistant director of investigations at the Secret Service and once handled supervision of dignitary protection.

His appointment as director is not subject to Senate confirmation.

(Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Mohammad Zargham)

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