Six black Secret Service agents are charging that a Denny's restaurant in Annapolis refused to serve them breakfast last month, just hours before the chain signed a consent decree in California agreeing to end discriminatory practices.
The U.S. Justice Department is demanding an explanation from Denny's officials, and an agency spokesman said yesterday that the agents plan to file civil lawsuits alleging racial discrimination.
"We intend to use our authority to the fullest to ensure that incidents like this do not recur in any part of this company's activities," said Dean St. Dennis, a Justice Department spokesman, reading from a prepared statement.
Mr. St. Dennis said the agents, whom he declined to name, were TC in Annapolis preparing for a visit from President Clinton on April 1. The president spoke at a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors at the U.S. Naval Academy.
The Justice Department statement says that "the incident occurred only hours before a federal court in California signed over a consent decree with Denny's that was designed to prevent just this kind of racial discrimination."
The statement also says that although the conduct happened before the consent decree was formally signed, "unless satisfactorily explained . . . [it] violates the letter and spirit of the understanding we had with the corporation."
Officials at Denny's corporate headquarters in Spartanburg, S.C., released a one-page statement yesterday saying the company "does not tolerate discrimination of any kind." The company statement also said an internal investigation has been launched and is expected to be completed in a few days.
The statement says the company first heard of the complaint on May 18 when it received a letter from Hubert T. Ball, assistant director of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, informing it of the allegations at the restaurant in the 2000 block of West St.
"We called him immediately and have been unable to directly speak with him or the customers involved," Denny's statement says. "We are disappointed it has taken over six weeks to learn of these serious allegations, and we have not had the chance to investigate and respond prior to any further action."
The manager of the West Street Denny's, Tom Nasser, would not comment yesterday and referred all questions to a spokeswoman in South Carolina.
A law enforcement source said yesterday that the six agents told authorities that they had ordered breakfast, and when no food was brought to them, they reordered several more times.
"They were never served the entire hour they sat at the table," the source said.
The agents left after more than an hour and an unsuccessful attempt to get an explanation from management, the source said, adding that a group of white Secret Service agents sitting at another table were served food with no problem.
Hours later, the national chain settled a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department's civil rights division, acknowledging there had been "isolated customer concerns" about some policies it said had been abandoned.
The chain said it would reinforce existing nationwide policies requiring equal treatment of all customers, regardless of race.
The settlement was executed in federal court in San Francisco because most discrimination complaints had arisen in California, but the agreement covered all of Denny's nearly 1,500 restaurants.
"We are demanding a complete explanation from the highest officials of the company," James P. Turner, acting assistant attorney general in the civil rights division, said in the statement.
"We want to know if it's true how the corporation could possibly have done this a few hours before it signed the consent decree," the spokesman, Mr. St. Dennis, said in an interview.
A separate class-action lawsuit against Denny's on behalf of 32 black California customers is pending in federal court in San Jose.
In that action, the customers allege that Denny's required blacks to pay a cover charge in order to be seated, refused to honor its free "birthday meal" offer to blacks and often threatened or forcibly removed black customers.
President Clinton was unaware of the incident on the day he spoke at the Naval Academy.
On Friday, White House communications director George Stephanopoulos said that "obviously a court will have to make the final determination about what happened, but the president is strongly against any discriminatory practices against anyone.
"Discrimination against black Secret Service agents would be a very serious problem."