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White House: First woman named to head Secret Service was ‘most qualified’

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The White House Wednesday dodged questions about whether President Obama was trying to send a pointed message by appointing the first woman ever to head the Secret Service, an agency still struggling to recover from a high-profile sex scandal.

Mr. Obama will host a swearing-in ceremony for Julia Pierson in the Oval Office Wednesday afternoon. Vice President Joe Biden will be on hand to administer the oath of office.

Julia Pierson, 53, a former field agent who has been chief of staff at the agency that protects the president and his family, will replace Mark Sullivan, Mr. Obama announced Tuesday.

Peppered with questions about her status as the first woman director, White House spokesman Joshua Earnest said only that she was the most qualified for the job.

Pressed whether she was his first choice, Mr. Earnest said he would not discuss the White House selection process.

"I don't know that there is even more than one candidate," Mr. Earnest said. "I mean, Ms. Pearson, as you know, is a 30-year veteran of the United States Secret Service. She's somebody who's held a variety of leadership roles for the Secret Service, from some protective activities to cybercrime and most recently as a chief of staff in the organization."

"So this is somebody who has a strong record of leadership at the organization, and she embodies the kind of character and leadership that the president would like to see at the top of that organization," he continued.

In announcing her selection Wednesday, Mr. Obama also stressed her experience, not her gender.

"Over her 30 years of experience with the Secret Service, Julia has consistently exemplified the spirit and dedication the men and women of the service demonstrate every day," Mr. Obama said.

"Julia is eminently qualified to lead the agency that not only safeguards Americans at major events and secures our financial system, but also protects our leaders and our first families, including my own."

The Secret Service last year became embroiled in a scandal involving agents taking prostitutes to their hotel rooms in Colombia before Mr. Obama visited the country for an international summit.

The incident came to light when one agent failed to pay a prostitute and they argued about it in a hallway of the hotel. Eight employees were forced out of the agency; three others were cleared of serious misconduct.

Ms. Pierson is a native of Florida and began her career with the Secret Service as a special agent with the Miami office in 1983. Starting in 1988, she served four years with the Presidential Protective Division.

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