A federal judge in Washington has sanctioned the U.S. Secret Service for stonewalling plaintiffs in a race discrimination case against the agency.
The judge concluded that the plaintiffs have "established a prima facie case of discriminatory non promotion" because of the agency's repeated misconduct in not producing documents and that the agency must pay the plaintiffs' legal fees for the related motions for sanctions.
In a prima facie case, the evidence presented by the plaintiff is the first step in the process, after which the defense has an opportunity to rebut the allegations.
The lawsuit, filed nearly a decade ago against the service on behalf of more than 100 current and former black agents, alleges that managers discriminated against them when they considered promotions.
The suit has revealed that senior managers at the service circulated e-mails with apparently racist imagery and messages, which the plaintiffs claimed were a manifestation of the discriminatory culture of the agency.
In an opinion issued Wednesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson blasted the Secret Service for making "a mockery" of the evidence-gathering rules of the court during evidentiary hearings earlier this year.
Robinson wrote that testimony of agency managers and agents "virtually mandates a finding that [the Secret Service's] noncompliance with the applicable rules and orders was willful" and that the agency defied court orders and rules in an attempt to justify the release of only the files it "was inclined to produce."
She wrote in her opinion that the service "failed to persuade the court" that it "diligently or reasonable searched" for documents responsive to the plaintiffs' requests, which violated court rules.
Later in her opinion, Robinson stated that the failure to produce the requested evidence prevented the plaintiffs' attorneys from preparing their case. She also found that the evidence brought forth by the service is "unpersuasive, inconsistent and exemplary of the inadequacy of defendant's search efforts."
Robinson wrote in her opinion that the "recalcitrance" of the service during the discovery phase of the case, during which it was expected to produce evidence in a timely fashion, remains "the most prominent feature of the record" in the case.
A Firm Denial
The Secret Service, which has denied the claims in the lawsuit, issued a statement on the ruling late Thursday afternoon noting that the case "is a long way from over" and that the agency "wholly disagrees with the magistrate's findings."
"The Secret Service has over a number of years made every attempt to respond fully and completely to all discovery requests, and the magistrate's orders," according to the statement. "Any assertion that we have been anything but responsive and forthright is just inaccurate."
Friday, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., challenged the service's assertions and expressed concern about the judge's findings.
In a letter to U.S. Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan, Thompson said the agency's stance that it responded "fully and completely" is "hard for me to believe in light of the court's substantive findings to the contrary."
Thompson also said that he questions the "accuracy" of Sullivan's assurances that the agency would have a "zero-tolerance" policy for discrimination and that the incidents referenced in the lawsuit and another matter in which a noose was found at one of the agency's training facilities "do not reflect the nature or culture of the organization.'
As for its response to the court orders, the service points out that it has turned over more than 22 million documents, performed extensive searches, reached out to current and former employees who might have kept relevant documents and spent $2 million to hire a contractor to scour the agency's server and computers.
But Thompson questioned the relevance of some of the documents that the service did turn over, saying that, despite the vast number of them, they weren't pertinent to the plaintiffs' requests. The agency's decision-making process with regard to the documents "begs credulity," he wrote.
Hogan & Hartson's Melissa Henke, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement, "For years, the Secret Service has aggressively hidden the truth about the culture of pervasive racial discrimination at the agency. The court's sanction is a positive step towards correcting the prejudice suffered by former and current African- American special agents as a result of the Secret Service's misconduct in this lawsuit."
Henke said the plaintiffs are looking forward to taking their case to trial, at which they expect to present "overwhelming evidence of a racially discriminatory promotions process at the Secret Service."
The plaintiffs want the agency to overhaul its procedures for hiring and promotions, among other things.
The Secret Service has flatly rejected the allegations, and stated Thursday that the sanction "says nothing about and does not validate the merits of the case." The agency maintains that black agents are promoted at a faster rate than their white counterparts.
The plaintiffs' attorneys claim that the statistics are distorted and that the court overseeing the lawsuit has repeatedly criticized the service for destroying documents. The service has vehemently denied that accusation.
The internal Secret Service e-mails that circulated among management became an embarrassment for the agency, which is charged with guarding presidents and dignitaries and has been immortalized in countless Hollywood dramas.
They included a video of an interracial couple confronted by Ku Klux Klan members with a burning cross, a message with a crude sexual joke about blacks and American Indians allegedly sent by an agent who served on the detail of President-elect Obama during his campaign and other e-mails that targeted prominent blacks, from activists to entertainers.
Secret Service Agent Ray Moore, a 24-year veteran and lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, told ABC News earlier this year that, "I firmly believe that I have been discriminated against, and I know that I've been discriminated against, and I know other African-American agents have been discriminated against because of the system that the Secret Service has in place of hiring, promoting, evaluating, transferring."
Moore said he was not surprised by the e-mails or the noose, although he said he was angry.
But what was "the most dismaying," Moore said, is that the e-mails were reportedly circulated among people in the upper levels of the Secret Service -- people in charge of hiring and formulating policy.
But Moore also faced scrutiny as part of the case, after a May court filing on behalf of the government showed that he had sent several racially offensive e-mails to friends and co-workers in 2003 and 2004.
Moore declined to comment on that court filing at the time but Desmond Hogan, a partner at law firm Hogan & Hartson and one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, called the government's filing a "sideshow" and did not excuse the racist e-mails reportedly sent by white managers.
Of the court's ruling, Hogan said that his clients' goal is to see racial discrimination "eradicated" from the service. He said the order "takes us one step closer to the implementation of a fair promotion system at the Secret Service, where agents are promoted on the basis of their qualifications, rather than on the color of their skin."
ABC News' Talesha Reynolds contributed to this report.