The director of the Secret Service told Congress on Wednesday that the recent Colombian prostitution scandal was a one-time occurrence, but deeply skeptical lawmakers said he is in denial and the evidence points to a larger pattern of misconduct within the agency charged with protecting the president.
Director Mark Sullivan apologized for last month’s incident in which agents working in Cartagena ahead of a presidential visit hired prostitutes, but said the episode shouldn’t tarnish the reputation of his agency.
“These individuals did some really dumb things,” he told the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “I’m hoping I can convince you that it isn’t a cultural issue.”
But the two top lawmakers on the committee said they see a pattern of bad behavior in the agency, pointing to details of the Colombia scandal and to 64 complaints of sexual misconduct in the agency over the last five years.
“I think he had a hard time coming to grips with the fact that he has a bigger problem than this one incident,” Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine, the panel’s ranking Republican, told reporters after the hearing.
The Secret Service says President Obama’s safety was never compromised, and Mr. Sullivan told the panel none of the agents involved had sensitive documents, firearms or other security-related equipment with them in the hotel rooms where they were with the women.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent and the panel chairman, acknowledged that so far he hasn’t found evidence of a pattern of misconduct. After reviewing the agency’s disciplinary records for the last five years, he found 64 accusations or complaints concerning sexual misconduct that were “troubling” but nothing that proves systemic agency problems.
There were three complaints of an inappropriate relationship with a foreign national and another of nonconsensual sexual intercourse, but the rest mainly involved sending sexually explicit emails or material on a government computer, Mr. Lieberman said.
“It is hard for many people to believe that on one night in April 2012 in Colombia, 12 Secret Service agents there to protect the president suddenly and spontaneously did something other agents had never done before,” Mr. Lieberman said.
The lawmakers also prodded Homeland Security Inspector General Charles Edwards, who agreed to conduct his own investigation of the incident instead of just reviewing the Secret Service’s investigation.
And Sen. Scott P. Brown, Massachusetts Republican, took Mr. Sullivan to task for his decision to ramp up oversight by sending high-ranking officials to supervise during trips involving the president or vice president.
“I’m a little bit confused as to why we would be sending a $155,000 person, another person, to basically baby-sit people that you say this hasn’t happened before,” Mr. Brown said.
“This isn’t ‘Animal House,’” he said. “The mission of the Secret Service is too important to the nation for its agents to engage in risky behavior.”
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