Secret Service prostitution scandal did not involve White House staff, spokesman says


A prostitute waits near the Hotel Caribe in Cartagena. (Reuters)
April 23, 2012

An internal White House review has determined that none of its staff members were involved in the Colombia prostitution scandal that has engulfed 23 members of the U.S. Secret Service and military, a spokesman said Monday. David Nakamura reported from the White House briefing.

Press secretary Jay Carney told reporters at his daily briefing that the White House counsel’s office has completed a review of all personnel assigned to the advance team for President Obama’s trip to Cartagena for an international summit two weeks ago.

That inquiry found no evidence that any of the political staff on the trip engaged in personal misconduct, Carney said.

In all, 12 Secret Service and 11 military personnel have been implicated in the widening scandal, which includes allegations of heavy drinking, visits to strip clubs and payments to prostitutes in advance of Obama’s participation in the Summit of the Americas.

“There was no indication that any member of the White House advance team engaged in any improper conduct or behavior,” Carney said. He added that the review was not prompted by any specific allegations against White House personnel but rather out of “an abundance of caution.”

The advance staff for a presidential trip abroad usually includes hundreds of personnel from the White House, Secret Service, military, State Department and other agencies, who are sent to the location as much as two weeks in advance of the president’s arrival.

The woman who was at the center of uncovering the scandal, Maryland native Paula Reid, spoke to The Washington Post last week.

Those who know Reid said the move revealed a steely resolve that has marked her 21-year rise through the ranks of an agency whose macho reputation has again come under scrutiny. Her story offers a counterbalance to critics who contend the Secret Service has been slow to clean up its act from the “Mad Men”-era days when some agents joked that their off-duty mantra was “wheels up, rings off.”

Not that Reid, an intensely private person, would admit it. In an interview, she offered few new details of her role, sticking to what colleagues described as her businesslike approach.

“I am confident that as an agency we’ll determine exactly what happened and take appropriate action,” she said in the interview with her and an agency spokesman. “Despite this current challenge facing the Secret Service, my job is to keep Miami personnel focused on our core protective and investigative missions. Anything less is counterproductive to the many critical functions we perform each day.”

Reid is still in the thick of it, assisting in the investigation. Those who have worked with her since she joined the Secret Service in 1990 described her as well suited for the challenge.

One former agent who worked with Reid in Miami during her previous stint in that bureau said she was exacting in the extreme, able to quote the agency administrative manual the way “fundamentalists quote the Bible.” This ex-colleague said that he did not always agree with her management approach but that he respected her work ethic and ability.

“If every boss was Paula Reid, the Secret Service would never have a problem,” the former agent said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about a former colleague. “It would be a lot more boring, but never a problem.”

Reid has never married. She describes herself as very close to her siblings, including her twin sister, and her family, most of whom still live in the Maryland suburbs.

Temptation isn’t hard to find for those visiting Cartagena. William Booth writes that the city is “swimming in prostitutes.”

Prostitution in Colombia is legal and widely accepted, a slightly embarrassing but very real part of the booming tourist trade here, as the nation sheds its international reputation for hyper-violent cocaine cartels (Pablo Escobar, rest in peace), and the tourists return to appreciate the beautiful beaches, great rum and colonial architecture of cities such as Cartagena, a World Heritage site.

When the news broke that 11 Secret Service agents and officers were sent home for romping with hookers on the eve of President Obama’s trip to the Organization of American States summit, many Colombians were amused.

“It is normal, no? These are our beauty queens,” said Elgoyo Payares, owner of La Bodeguita del Medio, a Cuban-style restaurant-bar in the old city. “And a man, even a secret agent type, does not leave his private parts at home when he travels.”

But the lighthearted response shifted when it became clear that the Secret Service scandal was overwhelming the good news about a peaceful, prosperous Colombia.

“It is a shame, because we have so much to offer, not just girls,” said Angela Vazquez, who works at a car dealership in Bogota and was enjoying a mojito at one of the hemisphere’s best-known salsa joints, the Cafe Havana, where Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton danced at the close of the summit last week.

But, Vazquez sighed, maybe it was getting a little out of hand. Outside the Cafe Havana, streetwalkers were swarming around male tourists, hissing “Hola, papi!” and begging to join them for a drink.

The latest phenomenon in Cartagena prostitution is the system called “prepago,” or pre-payment, and it is designed to avoid the very kind of early-morning fee dispute that investigators say occurred in a hallway of the Hotel Caribe on April 12, when a U.S. officer from a Secret Service advance team and the woman who spent the night with him argued, loudly, which eventually attracted hotel security and Colombian police and prompted a call to the U.S. Embassy.

Jimena said the prepago system was good business, for both client and service provider. To go to a room in the back of the Isis costs $100. To go to a hotel for the night would be $350, she explained, gratuities welcome.

The taxi drivers who work the clubs say any prostitutes who went with any of the American agents are hiding from the media and authorities. The alleged prostitute at the center of the case, who gave a single interview, to the New York Times, has left her home, her attorney said. Her picture was published in the New York Daily News from images taken from Facebook.

Clovis del Rio, a taxi driver stationed at the Hotel Caribe, said the pictures of the now-famous alleged prostitute are both good and bad. “Good that she is beautiful,” he said, “and bad for the American agent.”

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