Seattle’s top FBI official, Laura M. Laughlin, whose sometimes stormy reign included paring back the investigation into a federal prosecutor’s killing and filing a sex-discrimination lawsuit against her own agency, abruptly retired from the bureau Monday.
FBI spokeswoman Ayn Sandalo Dietrich in Seattle confirmed Monday night that Laughlin, special agent in charge of the Seattle field office, had retired, saying in an email that Laughlin was approaching the mandatory retirement age of 57 in September and that “many special agents choose to retire before that age-related mandatory point.”
But Laughlin’s choice of the Presidents Day holiday to retire was somewhat unusual, and her action came after her office underwent a routine field inspection in December by the FBI. Dietrich said the official results of the inspection have not been made known.
Laughlin, who joined the FBI in 1985 and was promoted in December 2004 to head the Seattle office, could not be reached for comment Monday night.
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Laughlin, who oversees all bureau operations in Washington state, is embroiled in a lawsuit with the FBI that is related, in part, to the bureau’s investigation of the unsolved 2001 slaying of federal prosecutor Thomas Wales in Seattle.
In 2006, the FBI took the rare step of removing the Wales case from the Seattle FBI and handed it to the Portland office after Laughlin, according to sources, sought to reduce the number of agents handling the high-profile investigation.
The effort set off a firestorm in the federal legal community in Seattle. Wales’ killing was seen by many as not only a personal tragedy but also as a possible assault on the rule of law.
In her lawsuit, filed in 2011 in the District of Columbia federal court, Laughlin alleged she had been denied at least 15 promotions since 2007 and that she had been pressured to retire since then and told she would never be promoted within the FBI.
The positions instead went to men of equal or inferior qualifications or women who had not complained of discrimination, her attorneys said.
Laughlin noted in court papers filed last year that she was the most senior special-agent-in-charge of the FBI’s 56 field offices and, as of that time, had served in her current position for the past nine years. During Laughlin’s tenure with the FBI, no one held that leadership post longer, her attorneys said, adding, “Typically, SACs hold the position for no more than two years.”
Laughlin first complained of FBI behavior in 1997, when she filed an internal discrimination complaint against a supervisor, McClatchy Newspapers reported last year. That complaint was subsequently settled.
Laughlin alleged in her lawsuit that shortly after arriving in Seattle 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,” according to the McClatchy story.
She further claimed the two white agents “had the support of a close associate” of then-FBI Director Robert Mueller. The FBI is now headed by James Comey, sworn in last fall.
Laughlin said she reassigned the two white agents, according to the McClatchy story. Shortly thereafter, in June 2006, she said 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 the fatal shooting of Wales in his Seattle home.
The reduction in the number of agents investigating the Wales killing from four to two was strongly criticized by a three-member FBI review team from Washington, D.C., which interviewed agents and supervisors in the Seattle office in 2006, The Seattle Times reported at the time, quoting sources.
The review team concluded that supervisors in Seattle had failed to provide adequate direction in the case, leaving agents without resources and support, the sources said.
The head of the Portland FBI office took over the case, which remains under investigation by a task force.
U.S. District Judge John Bates sided last year with the FBI in dismissing some of Laughlin’s claims, according to McClatchy. 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,” according to the McClatchy story.
But Bates said Laughlin may 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.
Staff reporter Mike Carter contributed to this report. Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @stevemiletich