Denying that the Secret Service has long condoned a culture of misconduct, Director Mark Sullivan insisted Wednesday during a Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing that the scandalous sexual romp by agents in Cartagena, Colombia, is not evidence of an agency that is out of control.
"The Secret Service has five core values: justice, duty, courage, honesty, and loyalty," Sullivan said. "The overwhelming majority of the men and women who serve in this agency exemplify these values...Clearly, the misconduct that took place on April 11, 2012 in Cartagena, Colombia is not representative of these values or of the high ethical standards we demand from our almost 7,000 employees."
Sullivan formally apologized for the unethical conduct that occurred on his watch in Colombia and promised the incident was an isolated one.
"These individuals did some really dumb things," Sullivan said.
But the explanation was insufficient for legislators, who grilled Sullivan for an explanation of how multiple groups of Secret Service agents assigned to protect President Obama during his trip to Colombia could get away with bringing prostitutes to the El Caribe hotel if this was not a part of the agency's accepted culture.
"It's hard for many people, including me, I'll admit, to believe that on one night in April 12 2012, in Cartagena, Colombia, 11 Secret Service agents--there to protect the president--suddenly and spontaneously did something they or other agents have never done before," said committee Chairman and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. [Romney on Secret Service Scandal: Clean House]
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, ranking committee member, said she was increasingly troubled that when Secret Service agents checked back into the Cartagena hotel after a night on the town, they gave their real names and the names of the women to hotel staff, making no secret of what they were doing.
"From my perspective, when you combine the facts of this case," Collins said, "the fact that agents made no attempt to conceal their identity [despite] the fact they were bringing these women back to their hotel rooms; a survey in which fewer than 60 percent of the Secret Service personnel said they would report ethical misconduct; the fact that this wasn't, as I said in my opening statement, a group of individuals that just got swept up in a situation, but rather smaller groups that engaged in the same kinds of misconduct--to me that just spells a broader problem of culture in the agency."
Collins also pointed to the fact that two of the officers linked to the scandal were leaders within the organization.
"Two of the participants were supervisors," Collins said, "one with 22 years of service and the other with 21. That surely sends a message to the rank and file that this kind of activity is somehow tolerated on the road."
A Washington Post story on Wednesday, which cited several anonymous sources, claimed that "sexual encounters during official travel had been condoned" in the past.
Sullivan sought to discredit that claim.
"I have worked for a lot of men and women in this organization. I never one time had any supervisor or any other agent tell me that this type of behavior was condoned," Sullivan said.
In the past five years, there have been 64 complaints of sexual misconduct against members of the Secret Service, according to records presented at the hearing. The majority of allegations regarded complaints of sexually explicit E-mails being exchanged or sexually explicit materials being stored on government computers. But three incidents involved charges of inappropriate relationships, one accusing a Secret Service agent of engaging in nonconsensual sex. Thirty separate complaints involved alcohol, most related to driving while under the influence.
Lieberman referred to a much older incident, in 2002 at the Salt Lake City Olympics, that allegedly involved Secret Service agents partying with underage girls.
Sullivan promised legislators that the Secret Service is aggressively pursuing changes within the agency to ensure incidents like the one in Colombia would not occur elsewhere.