July 1994

Workplace Labor Update - Kitchengate – July 1994

5 min

At the governor's mansion in Arkansas, Bill Clinton usually served good-ole-boy delights like corn bread, fried chicken, black-eyed peas and chess pie, washed down with cold beer. His wife Hillary, a disciple of the fat-free, high-protein, low-alcohol, ecologically-correct diet for survival of the fittest, had to "kinda quiet him sometimes," according to their devoted Little Rock cook, Liza Ashley.

Not long after the Clintons moved into the White House in Washington, an elite delegation from the American Society of Culinary Art began lobbying the President and the First Lady to hire an American chef and serve contemporary meals instead of the traditional French cuisine. This heresy rankled some of the socialites and diplomats in the nation's capital, but it was welcomed by the populist politician who won the nation's highest office with a Big Mac in hand and a down-home style of entertaining friends or visiting dignitaries.

An unimpeachable source, social columnist Dian McLellan, had this to say about the First Family's epicurean dilemma:

"I call it a three-way taste bud battle. There's the rich French cuisine versus nouvelle American and Bubba Grub. They were all on a collision course -- and the number one casualty was French."

The first human being to walk the galley plank was Pierre Chambrin, who had been the White House Executive Chef since 1990. One of his senior assistants, Sean Haddon, was ordered to pack up his crepe suzettes and leave a few months later. The new First Chef, Walter Scheib III, arrived in April, 1994, winner in a nationwide search. This 1979 graduate of "the other CIA" (Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York) has a professional pedigree which includes service at the Capital Hilton in Washington, the Boca Raton Resort & Country Club in Florida, and the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, where he supervised a staff of 200--and served "healthy" meals.

At the Executive Residence, Super-Chef Scheib creates fancy American entrees for state dinners and fat- free basics for most private First Family meals. "Our light dishes are indistinguishable from normal food," he boasts. "They're tasty, just lower calorie content." But he concedes that "if the President and Miss Chelsea want hamburgers, I give them a burger that's better than any they ever tasted." For thus satisfying the presidential palette, Scheib receives an annual retainer of about $75,000, is up at sunrise, and on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This transition within the First Kitchen was not all peaches and cream, however. Bypassed for promotion, Sean Haddon rattled the china by filing a charge under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in which he alleged that he was discriminatorily denied the position of "sous-chef" in the White House. He supported this claim with the contention that the under-chef job was given to an individual of lesser seniority and qualifications but who, unlike Haddon, spoke the French language. Haddon added that he was retaliated against for complaining about this disparate treatment when an employee of the Executive Residence threatened to "beat the s_ _ _" out of him because he requested a meeting with an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor. (See Haddon v. Walters, Chief Usher, The Executive Residence, 836 F.Supp. 1 (D.D.C., 1993).)

As further evidence of "retaliation," Haddon contended that he was given a poor evaluation (for the first time in his career) due to his complaint of discrimination. He also claimed that the White House Chief Usher subsequently contacted the FBI, alleging that Haddon had threatened the President and the First Family with physical harm. As a result of this grave accusation, Haddon was escorted bodily from the White House, had his White House pass confiscated, and was placed on administrative leave.

By way of evidence of what Haddon referred to as "the trumped-up nature of these charges," he claimed that he was completely exonerated by the Secret Service in its follow-up investigation. In support of his assertion that the court had jurisdiction to consider the lawsuit, Haddon submitted evidence that on a similar occasion when an employee of the Executive Residence initiated a civil rights complaint during the Nixon Administration, the White House complied with the procedures outlined in Title VII which are at issue in this case.

Notwithstanding all of the bizarre factual allegations, the court decided this case solely on the basis of the language of a federal statute governing employment at the Executive Residence. This law provides that the President of the United States "is authorized to appoint and fix the pay of employees in the Executive Residence at the White House without regard to any other provision of law regulating the employment or compensation of persons in the Government service." See 3 U.S.C. 105(b)(1). Because, in the court's opinion, this statute gives the President "complete discretion to hire and fire the domestic staff...for whatever reason he chooses," Haddon was not permitted to bring an action under Title VII.

In further explaining the decision, District Court Judge Sporkin noted that the position of White House Chef is "intimately involved" with the First Family's lives, and that to restrict the President's ability to fire or delegate the decision to fire one of these employees is "to strike at the very heart of the President's authority to manage his own household." In granting the White House's motion to dismiss the complaint, the Judge reasoned that "[w]ithout making any judgment on the truth of Mr. Haddon's allegations, it is undeniable that for this Court to subject the White House to all the burdens of civil discovery in an employment discrimination suit raises problems of constitutional magnitude." And so he concluded that

"If the statute were interpreted to expose the President to the strictures of Title VII, then the President of the United States would be compelled to submit to interrogatories and depositions about his hiring practices in the Executive Residence. Had the Congress intended to so encumber the President in passing the 1972 amendments to the Civil Rights Act, or the 1991 Act to which the Government refers, it should be so specified in the text of the statute."

It seems that at least in the case of culinary capers, a President can have his cake and eat it too.