WASHINGTON — Three more Secret Service officers resigned Friday in the expanding prostitution scandal that has brought scorching criticism of agents’ behaviour in Colombia just before President Barack Obama’s visit for a summit meeting last week. Agency Director Mark Sullivan came to the White House late Friday to personally brief Obama in the Oval Office.
The Secret Service announced the new resignations, bringing to six the number of agency officers who have lost their jobs so far because of events at their hotel in Cartagena.
An additional agency employee was implicated Friday, a government official said, commenting only on condition of anonymity concerning the continuing investigation. That brings the number to 12. One has been cleared of serious misconduct but still faces administrative action, an official said.
Obama’s spokesman has assailed Republican criticism that has attempted to blame a lack of presidential leadership for the scandal and has said Obama would be angry if allegations published so far proved to be true. Friday’s was Obama’s first personal briefing by Sullivan on the subject, officials said.
Eleven Secret Service employees had been noted earlier. The 12th has been placed on administrative leave.
The scandal also involves at least 11 military members who were working on security before Obama arrived in Cartagena for the Summit of the Americas. The Pentagon acknowledged Friday that the 11th military person, a member of the Army, was implicated.
The incident in Colombia involved at least some Secret Service personnel bringing prostitutes to their hotel rooms. News of the incident, which involves at least 20 Colombian women, broke a week ago after a fight over payment between a prostitute and a Secret Service agent spilled into the hotel hallway. A 24-year-old Colombian prostitute told The New York Times that the agent agreed to pay her $800 for a night of sex but the next morning offered her only $30. She eventually left the hotel, she told the newspaper, after she was paid $225.
Two Secret Service supervisors and another employee were forced out of the agency earlier in the week. All of the agents being investigated have had their top-secret clearances revoked.
Meanwhile, the lawyer for two Secret Service supervisors said that Obama’s safety was never at risk, and he criticized leaks of internal government investigations in the case, signalling a possible strategy for an upcoming legal defence.
The Secret Service briefed about two-dozen congressional staff members Friday, mainly from the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to one individual who was there but was not authorized to be quoted by name.
The person said investigators have photo ID’s and names from a Cartagena, Colombia, hotel registry for all the women who stayed overnight and are in the process of conducting interviews. Investigators have interviewed maids and said no alcohol or drugs were found in the rooms.
Those under investigation were offered polygraphs and drug tests. It is unclear whether anyone accepted, the person said.
As for the military personnel involved, Pentagon press secretary George Little said Defence Secretary Leon Panetta was getting regular updates on the investigation.
“He understands the level of interest in this issue,” Little said. “He has serious concerns about the alleged misconduct.”
Little said members of Congress have not yet been briefed on the military investigation but would be “in the near future.”
In a letter to Secret Service employees Monday and obtained by the AP, Director Sullivan said the agency had moved in a “swift, decisive manner immediately after this incident was brought to our attention.” He praised “the overwhelming majority” of employees who he said had acted with the “highest levels of professionalism and ethical behaviour.”
“Our job, our mission, our responsibility is to the president, the American people and the individuals we are entrusted to protect,” Sullivan said. “This is not just a matter of honour, although this is critical. It is imperative, as part of our sworn duties, to always act both personally and professionally in a manner that recognizes the seriousness and consequence of our mission.”
In Colombia Friday, Colombian prosecutors spent more than three hours questioning a taxi driver who led reporters to the home of the young woman who he said was the prostitute who launched the scandal by complaining of not being paid by a Secret Service agent at the Hotel Caribe.
A senior official in the local prosecutor’s office said the driver, Jose Pena, was not suspected of any crime but that a Colombian investigation into the case began Thursday to ensure that none of the prostitutes involved was a minor.
There is no information indicating a crime was committed, said the official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name.
The prosecutor’s office official said the Colombian investigation was separate from U.S. probes and that Colombian investigators had not been in touch with the U.S. investigators. The official also said the Colombian investigators did not have and had not asked for a copy of the security videotapes from inside the hotel.
Pena told the AP Friday morning that he had not spoken with any U.S. investigators. He did not answer his phone after he met with Colombian investigators.
The lawyer for ousted Secret Service supervisors David Chaney and Greg Stokes, Lawrence Berger of New York, said Friday that leaks surrounding the investigations “distort the process.”
Regardless of what happened inside hotel rooms, Berger said, it never jeopardized the president’s security. Berger said he could not comment on the woman’s claims about being paid for sex, but he added, “I don’t think anything she has said is material to any of the issues I am pressing with my clients.”
“Nothing that has been reported in the press in any way negatively or adversely impacted the mission of that agency or the safety of the president of the United States,” Berger said.
Chaney and Stokes were forced out of the agency Wednesday. A third agent, who has not been identified and was not a supervisor, resigned.
On Chaney’s Facebook account, which was made inaccessible on Friday, Chaney joked about his work with former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin while he was protecting her in 2008. The AP published a photograph it took of Chaney working in Palin’s protective detail in October 2008 during a campaign rally in Carson, Calif.
“I was really checking her out, if you know what i mean?” Chaney wrote after a friend commented on the picture posted in January 2009 on Chaney’s Facebook account.
Speaking on Fox News late Thursday, Palin said the joke was on Chaney.
“Well, check this out, buddy — you’re fired!” Palin said.
The agency’s investigation has included interviews of agents and hotel staff. Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said this week that investigators in Colombia have not been able to interview the women.
The affair has also prompted a military investigation of the service members, including six members of the Army, two Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal technicians, two Marine dog handlers and an Air Force airman.
An Air Force colonel and a military lawyer were also dispatched to Colombia this week. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, patronizing prostitutes is a crime for military personnel. It is referred to as “compelling, inducing, enticing or procuring a person to have sex in exchange for money; or receiving money for arranged sex.”
Officials from U.S. Southern Command, which organized the military role for the security operation, have not provided details of its probe beyond saying that at least some of the military members violated curfew and may have been involved in “inappropriate conduct.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney has said it is “preposterous to politicize” the issue, responding to criticism from Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions and Palin, who have said the allegations reflect poor management of the government under Obama.
Palin described the affair Thursday as a “symptom of government run amok.”
“It’s like, who’s minding the store around here?” Palin said.