The Denny's restaurant chain yesterday fired the manager of its Annapolis restaurant where six black Secret Service agents allegedly were victims of racial discrimination.
Denny's said the manager was dismissed for failing to report the agents' complaint. Its written statement said the company's own investigation suggests the problem was "slow service and not racial bias."
Announcement of the firing followed several days of news reports of the incident and came on the same day that lawyers for the agents filed a federal lawsuit in Baltimore over the incident. At a Washington news conference, the agents said the Secret Service had been supportive of their effort, adding that the decision to break from the traditional Secret Service stoicism and file the suit was a difficult one.
"The question that went through our minds was, 'If not us, who?' " Officer Robin Thompson of Laurel said.
"If not now, when?"
The agents, all Marylanders, were part of a uniformed detail assigned to protect President Clinton during an April 1 address at the U.S. Naval Academy. The 21-member unit had stopped at the restaurant before setting up their metal-detecting equipment at the speech site.
The six agents said they sat together at Denny's -- wearing full uniform, badges and guns -- for an hour after ordering breakfast without being served, while watching their white colleagues finish second and even third servings.
"These agents are in an elite enough group that they can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the President of the United States, but they weren't good enough to get served a plate of eggs at Denny's," said John Relman, an attorney for the agents.
Officer Alfonso Dyson, 25, of Upper Marlboro, said he decided poor service was not the only reason for the delay when a small group of whites who had entered the restaurant 30 minutes after the Secret Service was served.
"For me, that rang some bells," Mr. Dyson said. "The only conclusion that I could come to was that it was racial discrimination."
Mr. Thompson said he was the last person to realize something was out of the ordinary.
"We're trained or indoctrinated to restrain our emotions, but I felt like I was lesser than the people I came with."
The agents' waitress told them their food was late because they were the last of the unit to order, but as the detail was leaving the restaurant, one officer heard the cook, who is black, say, "Their food has been up there the whole time."
One of the 21-agent detail's seven black members, Lt. James Suber, sat with white agents and was served, the suit says. The other four plaintiffs are Marvin L. Fowlkes of Germantown, Merrill L. Hodge of Largo, Joseph W. James of Hyattsville and Leroy E. Snyder of Lusby.
The six agents also allege the diner's manager, Tom Nasser, deliberately gave them incorrect information when they sought the address of the regional office to file a complaint.
The agents' lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages and an injunction directing Denny's to take action to prevent racial discrimination in the future. Defendants in the case include Denny's Inc.; TW Services Inc., a parent corporation; and TW Holdings Inc., a holding company.
Last month, Denny's signed a consent decree in California agreeing to halt discriminatory practices.
Although the settlement arose out of complaints in the San Francisco area, it applies to all 1,500 Denny's restaurants nationwide.
A class-action suit from 32 black customers alleging racism was filed against the company in March and is pending, the agents' attorney said.
An attorney for TW Services' Inc. said yesterday the company would likely ask the NAACP to investigate the Annapolis incident.
"We are very upset over any hint of discrimination and are committed to investigating fully," TW said.