Congress and the State Department's inspector general are examining allegations that senior officials working under Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton may have suppressed investigations into suspected criminal activity among U.S. diplomats abroad — including the alleged solicitation of prostitutes by an ambassador in Europe.
Lawmakers from both parties said the charges are "very serious" — and point out the need for a permanent inspector general at the State Department. A deputy inspector general has been active in recent years, but the department's top watchdog post, tasked with investigating practices at roughly 260 embassies worldwide, has been vacant for more than five years.
A spokesman for office of inspector general said Tuesday that the probe into "allegations of quashing" by State Department higher-ups was triggered by a 2012 office of inspector general review of the department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
That review uncovered complaints by some officials that they were not allowed to thoroughly investigate the allegations of criminal activity. As a result, the office of inspector general has hired independent law enforcement specialists to examine the complaints and the extent to which investigators within the Bureau of Diplomatic Security are being allowed the level of independence required to do their jobs effectively.
In addition to reviewing "eight allegations of criminal misconduct" that arose during the 2012 review, Doug Welty, a spokesman for the office of inspector general, said the office is "also looking into the allegations of quashing."
Mr. Welty made the remarks as Undersecretary of State Patrick F. Kennedy issued a statement to reporters Tuesday saying he has "never once interfered, nor would I condone interfering, in any investigation."
Mr. Welty and others at the State Department have declined to comment on the specific allegations related to "quashing."
But Mr. Kennedy apparently made the statement in response to the CBS News report this week that insinuated that he was involved in suppressing an investigation into the activities of a U.S. ambassador accused of patronizing prostitutes in a public park.
Citing "sources," CBS News reported that after the accusation surfaced, the ambassador was called to Washington to meet with Mr. Kennedy, but then was permitted to return to his post.
CBS also reported that officials from the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security told the office of inspector general that they were told to stop investigating the case.
The State Department has vigorously rejected the CBS report. A senior spokeswoman called it "preposterous" to claim the department would not vigorously investigate allegations of criminal misconduct.
Department officials have remained vague, however, about the details of the allegations in question.
As spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki refused Tuesday to confirm or deny whether a U.S. ambassador had been accused of patronizing prostitutes, U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman emailed an abrupt statement to reporters, saying he was "angered and saddened" by "baseless allegations that have appeared in the press."
"I live on a beautiful park in Brussels that you walk through to get to many locations, and at no point have I ever engaged in any improper activity," Mr. Gutman said in the statement.
"To watch the four years I have proudly served in Belgium smeared is devastating," he said.
The ambassador's denial appeared to represent the first official acknowledgment of the various allegations of criminal activity cited in the CBS News report.
According to the Center For Responsive Politics, Mr. Gutman was a key Obama fundraiser in 2008, bundling at least $775,000 for the president's campaign and the Inaugural Committee.
A separate allegation was reportedly made against a State Department security official in Beirut accused of sexually assaulting foreign nationals hired as embassy guards. In another, members of Mrs. Clinton's security detail were accused of regularly pursuing prostitutes while on official trips in foreign countries. Another referenced a suspected illegal narcotics ring tied to State Department contractors at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
When pressed for details Tuesday about the cases and an explanation as to whether Mr. Gutman has been cleared from the allegations made against him, Ms. Psaki responded that "there are some investigations that are still ongoing, some that have been concluded."
"I'm not going to break down individual cases," she said, adding that all of the allegations in question were "unsubstantiated."
One State Department official said that the allegations of criminal activity as well as the allegations of quashing by department higher-ups may have been born out of an anonymous survey given to officials in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security as part of the office of inspector general's 2012 review of the bureau's activities. "One of the first things they do is a survey, sent out to employees, contractors, etc.," the official said. "It's all confidential and sometimes these issues come up. Then, these same people who filled out the survey have an opportunity to speak to inspectors confidentially and sometimes that's when the allegations come up.
"Allegations are allegations," the official added. "Not until they can be substantiated and verified do they become findings."
The situation is drawing increasing attention, meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers from both sides of the isle have begun expressing concern.
"I am appalled not only at the reported misconduct itself, but at the reported interference in the investigations of the misconduct," said Rep. Ed Royce, California Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
If there was interference by State Department officials in investigations being conducted by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, it "must be uncovered," said Mr. Royce, who added that he has asked his staff "to begin an investigation into these allegations."
In a letter to Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Mr. Royce wrote that "the notion that any or all of these cases would not be investigated thoroughly by the [State] Department is unacceptable."
A spokesman for Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said reports that the State Department dropped or influenced investigations into allegations of misconduct "are very serious and require a dispassionate investigation of the facts."
"The committee is looking into the alleged actions, and this situation underscores the need for an appointment of a permanent inspector general for the Department of State to assure that allegations of this sort are quickly, fully, and appropriately addressed," the Menendez spokesman said in an email to Politico on Tuesday.
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