By Lesley Clark, McClatchy Newspapers –
WASHINGTON — Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan apologized Wednesday before a Senate panel for the prostitution scandal that has embarrassed his agency and overshadowed President Barack Obama’s April trip to the Summit of the Americas, saying it was the result of a few agents doing “really dumb things,” and not a sign of a workplace culture that turns a blind eye to misbehavior.
Skeptical lawmakers, however, questioned whether the carousing in Cartagena, Colombia, was truly a one-time incident. The Senate Homeland Security Committee revealed 64 allegations of sexual misconduct against Secret Service employees over the past five years, including a report of non-consensual sex and of soliciting a prostitute. The senators welcomed further inquiry, including an independent investigation by the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general.
“I am deeply disappointed, and I apologize for the misconduct of these employees and the distraction that it has caused,” Sullivan said, referring to the agents who took prostitutes back to their hotel rooms on a trip ahead of Obama’s visit. “The men and women of the U.S. Secret Service are committed to continuing to live up to the standards that the president, the Congress and the American people expect and deserve.”
Sullivan sought to portray the event as rogue agents most likely influenced by alcohol and “the environment,” but Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the panel’s top Republican, were nearly incredulous, though they had no proof that it was otherwise.
“It is hard for many people, including me, I will admit, to believe that on one night in April 2012 in Cartagena, Colombia, 12 Secret Service agents there to protect the president suddenly and spontaneously did something they or other agents had never done before,” Lieberman said. He added that the agents had “gone out in groups of two, three or four to four different nightclubs or strip clubs, drink to excess and then bring foreign national women back to their hotel rooms.” He said the event left lawmakers with a sense of “lingering disbelief.”
Collins noted that the men had openly registered the women at their hotel and had gone out partying with their supervisors.
“That surely sends a message to the rank and file that this kind of activity is tolerated on the road,” said Collins, who called the behavior “morally repugnant.” She added that the “numbers involved,” as well as the supervisors, “lead me to believe that this was not just a one-time event. Rather, the circumstances unfortunately suggest an issue of culture.”
Sullivan’s testimony came as The Washington Post reported that four employees are fighting their dismissals for misconduct, arguing that they’re being punished for behavior that the agency has long condoned.
Sullivan noted that the story had “cited numerous anonymous sources” and said he’d encourage anyone with information to report it to investigators.
“The notion that this type of behavior is condoned or authorized is just absurd, in my opinion,” he said, adding that in 29 years with the agency he’d never had a supervisor or agent tell him that such behavior was allowed.
“I’m confident this is not a cultural issue, this is not a systemic issue,” he said.
A review of the agency’s disciplinary records found that the 64 complaints mostly involved sending sexually explicit emails or having such material on a government computer, Lieberman said. He noted that “discipline was imposed in most of the cases” and called them “troubling,” but “not evidence yet of a pattern of misconduct.”
Regarding the report of non-consensual sex, Sullivan said law enforcement had conducted an “intense” investigation and decided not to proceed with any charges.
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Sullivan acknowledged that one agent had been let go after being charged with soliciting an undercover officer who posed as a prostitute in Washington.
Acting Homeland Security Inspector General Charles Edwards also noted that his agency was looking into a report of five agents partying with underage girls at the 2002 Winter Olympics, in Salt Lake City. Sullivan said he thought it was three agents, and that they were “gone pretty quick” from the Secret Service.
“Anything that compromises our mission, we’re going to be concerned about,” Sullivan said. “We want our people to live up to the standards of our organization.”
He noted that there were recent allegations of misconduct in El Salvador but an investigation had found no evidence to back them up.
The lawmakers said they were concerned by Sullivan’s testimony that only 60 percent of agents said in a survey that they would report colleagues who misbehaved.
Sullivan, who immediately called back the agents who were involved in the situation in Colombia, said his agency had found “no adverse information” to suggest that national security had been breached. He said none of those involved in the misconduct “had received any specific protective information, sensitive security documents, firearms, radios or other security-related equipment in their hotel rooms.”
Sullivan said there were about 200 Secret Service personnel in Cartagena when the misconduct occurred: Nine were found to have been involved in “serious misconduct” and three ultimately were cleared.