WASHINGTON — The Seattle-based FBI special agent who oversees all bureau operations in Washington state is embroiled in a legal fight with officials who she says have discriminated against her and undermined her work.
In a lawsuit that partially cleared a key hurdle Thursday, Special Agent-in-Charge Laura M. Laughlin, 55, complained that she has been denied at least 10 promotions since she took over the FBI’s Seattle field office in early 2005. She also asserts that she has been pressured since 2007 to retire from the high-profile position and has been denied requests for more staff.
“As a combined effect of all these matters, she is not respected as a leader by her subordinates and management chain in the way that (special agents-in-charge) normally are,” attorneys David Wachtel and Eliza Dermody wrote in a legal brief.
Laughlin first complained of FBI behavior in 1997, when she filed an internal discrimination complaint against a supervisor. That complaint was subsequently settled.
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Shortly after arriving in Seattle, Laughlin said in a legal filing, she found “multiple instances of race and sex discrimination and insubordination directed at a supervisory-special agent in her division by two white, male special agents.” Laughlin further claimed the two white agents “had the support of a close associate” of FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Laughlin says she reassigned the two white agents. Shortly thereafter, in June 2006, she says the FBI “severely damaged” her reputation when it took the “unprecedented step” of transferring a major homicide investigation to another field office. The investigation in question was into the 2001 killing of federal prosecutor Thomas Wales in his Seattle home. The case remains unsolved.
“After 27 years in the FBI, (Laughlin) has worked her way up to a position with a high level of responsibility, only to find that she no longer has the opportunity for advancement that her peers have (and) she no longer has control of all bureau operations in her jurisdiction,” Laughlin’s attorneys wrote.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge John Bates sided with the FBI in dismissing some of the complaint that Laughlin filed in 2011. For example, Bates rejected Laughlin’s age-discrimination claim with the observation that “pressure to retire, without more, does not constitute objectively tangible harm.”
Bates also dismissed Laughlin’s claims that the FBI created a hostile work environment through its actions.
“The acts span a period of several years and were relatively infrequent,” Bates concluded, adding that “these isolated incidents are not fairly characterized as pervasive.”
But Bates said Laughlin can proceed with her sex-discrimination and retaliation claims.
The FBI, Bates said, “has not met its burden of showing that Laughlin failed to exhaust” potential administrative remedies.
Laughlin’s lawsuit is an unusual case of a special agent challenging the FBI’s management in court. It’s particularly unusual, in part, because of Laughlin’s prominent position.
As a result of not being promoted, she is now the bureau’s second-longest serving special agent-in-charge in the country.
“We are not commenting on pending litigation,” FBI spokesman Christopher Allen said in an email.
Laughlin could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Laughlin joined the FBI in 1985 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. As special agent-in-charge, she oversees the Seattle office and nine satellite offices in Tacoma, Olympia, Richland and elsewhere. She administers a staff of about 300 agents and support personnel, and has been in the public spotlight for investigations into crimes.