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Alleged racism in ATF spurs call for hearing


WASHINGTON -- House Majority Leader Dick Armey called yesterday for a congressional hearing into reports that South Carolina agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had organized a three-day whites-only retreat where racist epithets and slogans were rampant.

In a letter to the chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, the Texas Republican said that he is "deeply disturbed and offended" by newspaper accounts describing how ATF officers in the Greenville, S.C., bureau coordinated a "Good Ol' Boy Roundup" in the Tennessee mountains last spring. Mr. Armey urged the chairman, Rep. Bill McCollum, a Florida Republican, "to call the appropriate representatives from the ATF . . . before your subcommittee at the earliest possible opportunity."

According to reports first published in the Washington Times, T-shirts were sold at the retreat that showed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s face under a target and O. J. Simpson dangling from a hangman's noose. Another T-shirt featured the image of a black man splayed across the hood of a white police officer's vehicle under a caption that read: "Boyz on the Hood."

Mr. Armey's request for a hearing followed ATF Director John W. Magaw's acknowledgment that federal officials had begun an investigation three weeks ago, when the incident came to the department's attention.

"Everyone at ATF knows of my intolerance for discrimination and harassment," Mr. Magaw said. "If an inquiry finds that anyone is involved in these practices, I will do everything in my power to mete out the strongest possible discipline."

A Treasury official said the agency's probe involves as many as 12 current and former ATF employees, who were reportedly involved in the May 18-20 event in Ocoee, Tenn. The gathering attracted 341 people and was organized by a former ATF agent, Gene Righmyter. Officials said the event has been staged every spring since 1980 as a form of recreation for law enforcement officers from across the nation.

Mr. Magaw, in an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America," said ATF agents started the event in 1980 as a "family situation" with raft trips and picnics. Starting in 1985, he said, "it became racist in nature, anti-black."

Federal officials said allegations of racist behavior by ATF agents could not have come at a worse time. The bureau, already under mounting criticism for its handling of the Branch Davidian confrontation two years ago near Waco, Texas, is also defending itself against a lawsuit brought by black agents claiming that they were victims of racist behavior in the agency's field offices. The lawsuit claims that ATF supervisors have failed to respond ++ to black agents' complaints of racial slurs and harassment.

In a separate statement, Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican, said that he was embarrassed by reports that employees of a federal law enforcement agency may "have participated in, and perhaps organized while on duty, a gathering in my state characterized by open and blatant displays of racism."

He said he plans to meet with Mr. Magaw next Thursday to learn what the agency is doing to uncover and correct instances of racial discrimination within the bureau.

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