Through last year, about one-third of the employees in the state Division of Purchase and Contract were black women. But a state investigation shows that that group accounted for only 5 percent of promotions in the department over the last seven years.
Purchase and Contract directs more than $4 billion in state equipment and service purchases each year.
"African-American applicants, particularly black females who had more experience and more education, were being denied promotions," said Jack Nichols, an attorney representing two women who filed formal complaints that they were unfairly passed over for promotion.
Nichols' clients are Yvonne Holley, the daughter of the late WRAL broadcasting icon J.D. Lewis, and Mildred Christmas, the daughter of the late civil rights activist Ralph Campbell.
Investigators with the state Office of Administrative Hearings agreed with Nichols' assessment, ruling there was a clear pattern of disparity in promotions within Purchase and Contract and that the department might have violated the federal Civil Rights Act.
"I've never seen that strong of language in any other investigative report," Nichols said.
Purchase and Contract officials flatly denied the allegations, calling them unfounded and untrue. The officials maintained they follow fair hiring and promotion procedures.
Officials with the state Department of Administration, which includes Purchase and Contract, noted the former secretary of the department was a black woman, as was the department's human resources director.
The discrimination cases are now before the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.