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Three investigators who work in the Alameda County public defender’s office have filed a race discrimination suit in federal court over promotions handed out under the previous office head. The African-American men allege that former Public Defender Jay Gaskill did not promote African-Americans to senior investigator jobs. Only white men were promoted to those posts, according to the suit. “What I have come to understand is that discrimination is very pervasive in the office,” said Oakland attorney Howard Moore Jr., who filed the suit on March 23. The three plaintiffs, Joseph Ingraham, Carl Montgomery and Andrew Walker Jr., have complained about the disparities since 1996, and no African-American investigators have held high-level posts in the past 18 years, the suit says. “It seems strange that in Alameda County … where African-Americans make a large part of the caseload” there are no black senior investigators, said Moore. The county counsel will “vigorously defend” the PD’s office, but the office has not seen the suit, said county attorney Richard Karlsson. He declined to comment further. Current Public Defender Diane Bellas, who is not named in the suit, declined to comment. Gaskill said he had little input in investigator promotions. “Those decisions were made upon the merits of the applicants,” he said. “The chips fell where they fell.” Gaskill, who said African-American investigators approached him about their concerns, had not seen the suit. The complaint alleges that the plaintiffs met eligibility requirements for the posts, and the white men who were promoted did not have more experience or higher civil service scores. Ingraham, Montgomery and Walker have 18, 15 and 12 years experience at the office respectively, Moore said. Gaskill says that the chief investigator made those personnel decisions on the basis of strict civil service guidelines. The men who were promoted were probably more qualified, he said. Gaskill hired the chief investigator, Trevor Patterson, but Patterson merely kept him informed about his promotion decisions, Gaskill said. However, Gaskill “is the decision maker,” said Moore. “He may have taken a recommendation from a functionary, but in the final analysis he is the guy that signs off.” Public defender’s office investigators interview and subpoena witnesses, photograph crime scenes, and write reports that attorneys use to defend clients, Moore said. There are four senior investigator positions. Usually, someone has to quit or retire before there is an opening, said Gaskill, who left the office in 1999. This is not the first time the specter of racial discrimination allegations has surfaced in the public defender’s office. When Gaskill retired, an organization of black public defender lawyers encouraged county supervisors to open up the PD search to a large pool of applicants. At the time, supervisors said that some attorneys from the office were concerned that the public defender’s office appeared reluctant to hire or promote lawyers who weren’t white. The plaintiffs in Ingraham v. Alameda County, C01-1209, seek backpay — which could amount to $30,000 per plaintiff — compensatory damages and punitive damages against Gaskill. The case is assigned to U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup.

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