New Details in Secret Service Case

Apr 18, 2012

At Least 20 Women Involved, Chief of the Agency Tells Congress; Questions Arise About Earlier Trips

Wall Street Journal -- by Evan Perez and Jose Decordoba 

WASHINGTON—U.S. lawmakers investigating an alleged Secret Service prostitution scandal said Tuesday that up to 20 women were brought back to a Colombian hotel in apparent violation of security rules prior to a regional presidential summit.

The Secret Service has dispatched investigators to interview the women who visited the hotel where Secret Service and U.S. military personnel were preparing for President Barack Obama to attend the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, the lawmakers said.

Over the weekend, the Secret Service put 11 agents and officers, including two supervisors, on administrative leave in response to allegations they brought prostitutes back to their hotel rooms on Wednesday night. The military said five military service personnel may have been involved as well.

Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) said Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan told her in a briefing that "some 20 women foreign nationals were brought to the hotel in Colombia," and that some were with military members.

Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.) said Mr. Sullivan told him 11 of the women were with 11 Secret Service members. The interviews by Secret Service investigators will help address concerns that any of the foreign nationals could have ties to organized crime or drug cartels, Rep. King said. The youngest of the women was 20 years old, he said.

So far, Mr. King said, the men involved have offered differing stories about the events in Colombia. Some of the officers "are claiming [the women] aren't prostitutes, just women they met in a bar," Mr. King said.

That wouldn't necessarily resolve the concerns, he said. "Secret Service shouldn't be bringing outside people into a secure zone," he said.

The incident has put a spotlight on Secret Service agents traveling overseas, with lawmakers asking whether there are other incidents that haven't come to light. Several committees are either investigating the matter or considering doing so.

Secret Service spokesman Edwin Donovan didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawmaker revelations Tuesday.

At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said that Mr. Obama had confidence in Mr. Sullivan, who has served in the Secret Service since 1983 and was appointed director in 2006 by President George W. Bush. Mr. Obama is awaiting the results of the investigation, Mr. Carney said.

Mr. King said Mr. Sullivan has done a good job at the Secret Service and that unless information emerges showing otherwise, he believes the director has appropriately handled the scandal. "I don't want the 11 agents to bring down the entire Secret Service or to have the director be blamed for it," he said.

The men involved haven't been identified.

A U.S. official with the delegation in Colombia said the incident began about 3 a.m. when the Secret Service agents returned with the women to the Hotel Caribe, located amid a stretch of tourist hotels outside the picturesque colonial walled city.

An initial version of the events provided by the Secret Service to lawmakers indicated that hotel personnel went to the room of one man when the woman he was with overstayed the 7 a.m. curfew for visitors.

The U.S. official who was with the delegation said none of the events would have come to light if one of the men hadn't refused to pay one of the women. "One guy didn't pay the girl and kicked her out of the room. She started making a ruckus, screaming, and kicking in doors," the official said. "She went downstairs, and the police were alerted."

The official said U.S. investigators are reviewing security video of the incident.

The Secret Service was formed as part of the Treasury Department just after the Civil War to fight counterfeiting. It didn't start providing full-time protection to presidents until after William McKinley was assassinated in 1901.

Today, the Secret Service is an agency within the Department of Homeland Security. It maintains its dual role, split between investigating financial crimes and protecting important officials, including candidates for the presidency. The agency has more than 6,000 employees.