What is most disturbing to many current and former Secret Service employees is when agents or officers violate the fundamental trust underlying their jobs.
Two years ago, Michael Cohen, a veteran agent mentoring a group of rookie agents in the Philadelphia office, embezzled some $ 2,800 from the Secret Service in two incidents. According to court documents and an interview with prosecutors, Cohen claimed to be a couple of thousand dollars short on a house-closing payment; when agents turned over $ 3,173 seized in a criminal investigation, Cohen kept some $ 2,000 and faked a $ 1,159 receipt for the balance. The case troubled prosecutor Amy Kurland. "He was so cavalier about taking $ 2,000," recalls Kurland. "Somebody who does that so easily is not someone who hasn't done that before. It wasn't a one-time, spur-of-the-moment, take-the-opportunity kind of theft." According to court testimony and an interview with Cohen's attorney, when Cohen was drawing in one of the other young agents into his scam, and the agent expressed concerns, Cohen said, "This is the way we did it all the time in Kansas City." Cohen drew a 33-month prison term. He is free pending appeal.
In October 2000, based on information from a confidential informant, two Secret Service agents were criss-crossing Miami-area streets, monitoring a pair of thieves as they methodically ripped off cash from ATM machines. At the end of the day, it came time to make the arrests. But the agents had a dilemma: how not to blow the cover of their informant, who was accompanying the thieves. According to court documents and interviews with attorneys, the agents decided to allow the informant to run away, giving the appearance of an escape. That's what they did. But when the agents reported the case to the U.S. attorney's office, they told prosecutors there were three ATM thieves, not two. A possible motive: James Smith, a high-ranking officer in the agency's Miami office, pocketed $ 1,309 of the cash nabbed from the ATM thefts, perhaps the informant's share. Prosecutors began investigating. The agents' story soon unraveled. The prosecutors were forced to void the convictions of the ATM thieves. Earlier this year, Smith got five months' prison time.
With their jobs providing ready access to cash, temptation isn't far away for Secret Service agents. Office funds meant to pay confidential informants was an obvious lure for William Ebert, a career agent who by the early 1990s had worked his way up through the ranks to a critical posting: head of the Secret Service's counterfeiting division. This was back when "supernotes," high-quality counterfeit bills, were beginning to show up in quantity around the country, eluding the best detection efforts. Ebert got tripped up in a scheme in which he was submitting phony vouchers and pocketing money meant for confidential informants and others. He had been buying expensive airline tickets and then getting refunds; double-billing on other tickets; and claiming phony payments to informants, in the United States and overseas. Ebert was sentenced to five months in prison followed by home confinement. He agreed to pay $ 29,900 in restitution and received a five-month prison term.
Many believe that at the root of such problems is a lack of accountability within the Secret Service. A government official familiar with the agency says the service has effectively used its Office of Inspection to sweep problems under the rug, seeking to prevent the inspector general (IG) of the Treasury Department—the service's parent agency—from opening and conducting investigations. In the past, this official says, the service circumvented the IG by classifying misconduct allegations as "management issues," thus keeping problems in-house, or in agency parlance, "in the family." Within the service, many current and former officials say, the "code of silence" is a time-honored tradition. Inspector General Jeffrey Rush says his office could have missed investigating some misconduct. In another area, a Treasury Department report, dated Oct. 31, 2001, concluded that investigators from the inspector general's staff "encountered a Secret Service policy hindering our access to its employees and records." That policy required agents and officers contacted by the Treasury IG's office to notify Secret Service headquarters. "It's like the cat and the bell," says Rush. "The mice like it, but the cat's got a job to do." Rush says he complained about the policy to Congress. The new policy still requires notification—not by agents but by the IG himself—before employees are contacted.