Misconduct alleged against Secret Service agents
By The Associated Press
An embarrassing scandal involving prostitutes and Secret Service agents widened Saturday when the U.S. military confirmed five service members staying at the same hotel in Colombia may have been involved in misconduct as well. The allegations overshadowed President Barack Obama's diplomacy in Latin America and threatened to bruise America's image.
The White House found itself having to insist that Obama still had full confidence in the agency designed to protect his life.
The Secret Service sent home about a dozen Secret Service agents for misconduct that occurred at their hotel before Obama's arrival in Colombia on Friday; The Associated Press confirmed that the behavior in question involved prostitutes.
Another bolt came Saturday when the U.S. Southern Command said five service members assigned to support the Secret Service violated their curfew and may have been involved in inappropriate conduct. The military members remained in Colombia confined to their quarters and ordered not to have contact with others.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said it was part of the same incident involving the Secret Service.
Put together, the allegations were an embarrassment for an American president on foreign soil and threatened to upend White House efforts to keep his trip focused squarely on boosting economic ties with fast-growing Latin America. Obama was holding two days of summit meetings with regional leaders before heading back to Washington Sunday night.
The Secret Service was investigating exactly what happened.
Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told the AP after he was briefed on the investigation on Saturday that "close to" all 11 of the agents involved had brought women back to their rooms at a hotel separate from where Obama is now staying.
The New York Republican said the women were "presumed to be prostitutes" but investigators were interviewing the agents.
The lawmaker also offered new details about the controversy.
King said he was told that anyone visiting the hotel overnight was required to leave identification at the front desk and leave the hotel by 7 a.m. When a woman failed to do so, it raised questions among hotel staff and police, who investigated. They found the woman with the agent in the hotel room and a dispute arose over whether the agent should have paid her.
King said he was told that the agent did eventually pay the woman.
Carney said the president was told of the incident involving the Secret Service on Friday. The spokesman refused to offer Obama's reaction.
The White House spokesman said the incident was not distracting Obama from his work, suggesting it was more of a matter of consuming interest to the media.
As for the apparent misconduct by the military members, Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of U.S. Southern Command, said he was "disappointed by the entire incident" and said the behavior was "not in keeping with the professional standards expected of members of the United States military."
Col. Scott Malcom, chief of public affairs for Southern Command, said of the five service members: "The only misconduct I can confirm is that they were violating the curfew established. He said he had seen the news reports about the Secret Service agents involved in alleged prostitution at the hotel but could not confirm whether the service members also were involved.
The military is investigating.
Initial reports said 12 Secret Service agents were involved, while King put the number at 11.
"The president does have full confidence in the United States Secret Service," Carney told reporters when asked about such a vote of confidence.
The alleged activities took place before Obama arrived Friday in this Colombian port city for meetings with 33 other regional leaders.
Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said the agents involved were relieved from duty and replaced with other agency personnel.
"These personnel changes will not affect the comprehensive security plan that has been prepared in advance of the president's trip," Donovan said.
The agency was continuing to investigate the matter Saturday, but had no additional comment.
The agents at the center of the allegations had stayed at Cartagena's five-star Hotel Caribe. Several members of the White House staff and press corps subsequently stayed at the hotel.
King credited the Secret Service director for acting quickly to remove the agents in question and replace them before Obama's arrival.
The incident was reported to the U.S. embassy, prompting further investigation, King said.
A hotel employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, said the agents arrived at the beachfront hotel about a week ago and said the agents left the hotel Thursday, a day before Obama and other regional leaders arrived for the weekend summit.
Three waiters interviewed by the AP at the hotel described the agents as drinking heavily during their stay.
On Friday, the hotel began filling up with the delegations of some of the more than 30 countries whose leaders are convening for the weekend Summit of the Americas.
The hotel's public relations director, Ana Beatriz Angel, refused to comment on the incident, which she said "concerns only and exclusively the U.S. government."
On the steamy streets of Cartagena, a resort city with a teeming prostitution trade, there was condemnation for the Secret Service agents for what residents saw as abusing their station and dishonoring their country.
Edwin Yepes, a souvenir vendor, said "they are supposed to come here and set an example. We are an inferior culture, and so it's better if they don't come than if they damage our image of them."