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Black group objects to White House choice for Secret Service chief

By Tabassum Zakaria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A group representing black law enforcement executives urged the White House not to choose retired official David O'Connor as the new Secret Service director because "nothing will change" in the agency's culture or treatment of minorities, according to a letter obtained by Reuters on Wednesday.

The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, or NOBLE, recommended that President Barack Obama select Deputy Director Alvin T. Smith.

In a March 6 letter to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, NOBLE National President Maurita Bryant said that if O'Connor's appointment goes through in "an agency trying to overcome a perception of racial discrimination and recent accusations of misconduct, that nothing will change"

Reuters reported last week that President Barack Obama had chosen O'Connor, a former high-ranking official, to replace Director Mark Sullivan, who retired last month. The White House has not commented on who the new director will be and had no immediate comment on the NOBLE letter. The organization says it has more than 2,500 members.

The Secret Service became embroiled in a scandal last year involving employees who took prostitutes back to their hotel rooms in Colombia ahead of Obama's visit.

"It is important that whoever is selected will have the stature and respect of the American people and the men and women of the USSS," the letter said.

Smith has been deputy director since April 2012. "We strongly feel that Mr. Smith should be the change agent worthy of the president's trust and confidence," the letter said.

Estella Thomas, a liaison for the federal agencies with NOBLE and a retired Secret Service lieutenant, said members praised Smith for being "very fair" in promotions of minorities.

The letter referenced news reports that O'Connor's name had cropped up in a long-running racial discrimination lawsuit in which plaintiffs secured emails of senior officials. One email that used racially charged language was sent to O'Connor, but his attorney said he did not distribute it further.

Reuters reported on March 6 that the lawsuit, which was recently certified as a class action, increases the likelihood that O'Connor would have to testify if the case comes to trial.

Both O'Connor and Smith are white. The Secret Service director does not require Senate confirmation and the agency is under the Department of Homeland Security.

The NAACP, a civil rights organization, sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano dated March 12 encouraging her to take time in selecting a Secret Service director.

"Specifically, the final candidate must be able to improve the morale of the USSS, while also diversifying the workforce," the letter from Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau, said.

A Department of Homeland Security spokesman had no comment.

(Reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Stacey Joyce)

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