By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Frank Owen
Purely economic" is how Broward Clerk of Courts Robert E. Lockwood defends his decision to use more than $1.3 million in tax money to end a racial discrimination suit by African-American employees.
He really wanted to fight on, Lockwood insists, but a trial would be too costly, and you just never know what a jury might do. So for taxpayers the settlement is just good business, Lockwood reasons. His lawyer even calls him courageous.
While all that may be true, another reality emerges from the thousands of pages of legal documents in U.S. District Court case 95-6808: For more than a year the Clerk's lawyers maneuvered to shield Lockwood and five supervisors named in the suit from being questioned under oath about the discrimination charges and settled only after U.S. District Judge Norman C. Roettger ruled against them on key deposition issues, declaring in February, "This case will proceed."
By settling when he did, Lockwood prevented his deposition from being taken.
Broward taxpayers will never know whether the 29 current and former employees could have proven their allegations -- and in interviews and court papers Lockwood and the supervisors repeatedly denied them. Still, there is enough detail in public records to suggest that answering so many explosive questions might have been more embarrassing to Lockwood than having taxpayers pay out $1.3 million to halt the suit.
Because county money is being used, the settlement must be approved by the Broward County Commission, which is scheduled to discuss the issue on Tuesday (April 14). Outraged commissioners vow to demand an accounting from Lockwood who, at age 76, has ruled the 600-employee Clerk's office for 22 years.
During that time, African-American employees charge, racism was "widespread and endemic," and Lockwood himself "individually engaged in acts of racist behavior," including telling visitors the Clerk's office was his "private plantation."
This article examines the pattern of specific incidents about which Lockwood and his supervisors would have been questioned if their depositions had gone forward. Much of the detail from the suit -- which began in August 1995 -- is revealed here for the first time.
To support a general charge that African-American employees faced "an ongoing barrage of racist insults," the suit lists both specific comments and the white employees allegedly involved. Because many of those employees were not named as defendants in the suit, New Times is not printing their names.
The suit's allegations of racist remarks include:
*When a white employee was asked to move boxes out of the probate storage room, he responded to his white supervisor, "Who the hell do you think I am, the office nigger?" Although the comment was made so it also could be heard by black supervisor Yolanda Henkerson, the white employee wasn't disciplined by his white supervisor.
*During a charity walk-a-thon sponsored by the Clerk's office, a white employee walking with other participants passed chicken bones on the ground and commented, "There must have been niggers around here." The white employee was never reprimanded or counseled for that remark.
*At a birthday party given by Lockwood for a white employee, a white supervisor announced: "If you want some food, you better get it before the niggers do." The supervisor wasn't disciplined.
*After African-American employees Beverly Smith and Rosemary Moody complained of being passed over for pay raises -- the discontent that eventually sparked the class-action lawsuit -- Lockwood, in the presence of four witnesses, called them the "two black girls."
Overall the suit charges that "Lockwood has been present when others made racist remarks in the presence of African-American employees of the Clerk's office and has done nothing to stop or correct such behavior."
Beyond racial insults, the African-American employees alleged a pattern of "racially discriminatory" practices involving promotions, pay increases, and work regulations, based in part on a statistical comparison of payroll and personnel records for blacks and whites. Not only did Lockwood do nothing to stop the practices, the suit charges, he "has himself been involved in numerous decisions resulting in the selection of Caucasians for appointed positions for which qualified African-American employees were available."
Behind the statistical analyses were human stories, like the workplace experiences of Lydia Moultry, a three-year employee in the probate division who was turned down for promotion to a more-specialized position. She waited about a year and again applied for advancement but again was rejected. At the times Moultry was rejected, promotions went to four white employees, each of whom had only about a year's experience; indeed, Moultry had trained all four of the promoted whites.
In another incident, Moultry asked her white supervisor, Mitzi O'Brien, for permission to leave work 30 minutes early to take her daughter to an orthodontist. According to the suit, O'Brien denied Moultry's request -- while that same day permitting a white employee to leave early to take her daughter to ballet class.
O'Brien was one of five supervisors named as defendants in the suit. They and Lockwood agreed to settle individual complaints against them for $150,000, all county government money. Among the incidents involving O'Brien, the suit alleges she threatened Moultry that "anyone who sues the Clerk's office will immediately be terminated" and told her, "It's people like you who bring the office down."