A former FBI agent at the center of one of the biggest discrimination cases in the agency's history has filed a new lawsuit, in which he says the FBI continues to exact retribution for a case he settled back in 1990.
Donald Rochon was 37 years old when he filed his landmark discrimination suit against the FBI. Rochon, who is black, was a young agent in Omaha, Neb., when some troubling things started to happen. In one incident, Rochon returned to his desk to find that someone had put a picture of monkey over his son's face in a family photograph.
Another episode took place shortly after Rochon learned to scuba dive. "Their ideology [was that] blacks couldn't swim," he says. "And they put up a photograph of me and another black person swimming in a garbage dump."
The situation escalated when Rochon and some of his tormentors were transferred to Chicago. He started getting death threats. In one instance, white agents said they would cut off his genitals. Then, about a week later, a death and dismemberment insurance policy appeared on Rochon's desk.
"That was traced back to an FBI agent," he says. The agent forged Rochon's signature on the policy.
The FBI supervisor said it was harmless fun and wrote the incidents off as pranks.
In separate investigations, the Justice Department and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission saw it differently. They found that Rochon was humiliated by agents because he was black. The former special agent in charge of the Omaha office told the EEOC that he considered the pranks to be "healthy" and a sign of "esprit de corps." He said he was aware of Rochon's racial harassment complaints, but he didn't take any formal action.
FBI Assistant Director John Miller says the bureau is on top of the issue. The Rochon case happened 20 years ago, he says, and the bureau has come a long way since then. It has systems in place so if people need to report something, they can. And the Justice Department eventually took full responsibility for what happened with Rochon: There were investigations. Agents were disciplined. Rules were changed.
Both the Justice Department and FBI declined to comment on Rochon's new lawsuit because it is ongoing.
The new charges allege that the FBI — which is responsible for enforcing federal civil rights laws — continues to retaliate against Rochon. His suit claims, for example, that a mobster he had helped put in jail threatened his life, and the FBI said it would investigate. Rochon says he discovered the agency never did.
As part of his earlier case, Rochon, who left the bureau, was supposed to receive a settlement that was essentially his salary and retirement. But one of Rochon's attorneys, Mike Rubin, says that has been a problem, too.
"He was promised once he reached mandatory retirement age in May of 2007, he would receive full pension like any other employee who had remained at the FBI throughout that entire time period," Rubin says. He says that hasn't happened.
When the two sides disagreed over the pension, Rochon filed his new claims. This time, the Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder are named in the suit. Rochon says it isn't about the money. He says there is a bigger issue involved — intimidation. "The FBI is kind of using me as an example to scare other employees — whether they be Title VII claimants or whistleblowers — into not making complaints," he says. "Otherwise, they are going to be haunted for the rest of their life."
The question now is whether Holder will use this case to look at the issue of race at the bureau — the very issue that he famously said in February the American people were too cowardly to tackle head on.
Rubin says he took Holder at his word when he said he wanted to talk about the racial issues lurking in the shadows. That's why before he filed Rochon's new lawsuit, he wrote Holder a letter and included the background of the case. He got a form letter back that said the case was being looked into.
"What's going on behind the scenes I don't know," says Rubin. "We're hopeful that he will turn his attention to this and put actions behind the great words that he articulated."
This week, the Justice Department asked the court for an extension to answer the case: Officials want 45 more days to study it. A spokesman declined to comment beyond that.
Rochon says he is looking forward to hearing what the new administration has to say.