The U.S. Secret Service is investigating whether a Republican volunteer committed the crime of impersonating a federal agent while forcibly removing three people from one of President Bush's public Social Security events, according to people familiar with the probe.
The Secret Service this week sent agents to Denver to probe allegations by three area Democrats that they were ousted from Bush's March 21 event. The three did not stage any protest at the rally and were later told by the Secret Service they were removed because their vehicle displayed an anti-Bush bumper sticker.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the man who removed them was a GOP volunteer, but he refused to divulge his name or whether he works in Colorado or Washington. "If someone is coming to an event to disrupt it, they are going to be asked to leave," McClellan said.
The Secret Service knows the man's name, one of the people familiar with the probe said, and has interviewed him. Secret Service spokesman Jim Mackin refused to comment for this article.
This is not the first time the White House has faced scrutiny for ousting critics from Bush appearances or trying to stack audiences with friendly Republicans.
In Fargo, N.D., earlier this year, a local newspaper reported more than 40 residents were put on a list of people who should not be let in the door; the White House blamed the incident on an overzealous volunteer.
Several people reported similar treatment at other Social Security rallies, as well as during the 2004 presidential campaign, when the Bush team reportedly required some people to sign forms endorsing Bush to get into the events, and removed dissenters.
The Justice Department recently moved to dismiss a case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two West Virginia residents, who were arrested last year after refusing to remove anti-Bush shirts at a Bush campaign event at the state capitol. The lawsuit was filed against a White House advance staffer and Secret Service Director W. Ralph Basham. The ACLU is investigating other incidents to determine whether it can show a pattern of unlawfully silencing critics. "The incidents occurred in so many locations, it's hard to believe individuals in each local area are coincidentally making the same decision," said Christopher Hansen of the ACLU Foundation in New York.
Bush travels to events with a protective guard of Secret Service agents, but the White House relies on paid advance staff members, who organize and oversee travel, GOP volunteers and local authorities to police crowds. They monitor people as they enter, scan the crowd while Bush is speaking and remove anyone seeking to disrupt the event. Usually, they wait until the person starts protesting, but McClellan said staff members can remove people if they think they are present only to disrupt. The White House typically distributes tickets to events through local party politicians or organizations, as a way to maximize the number of Bush supporters.
In the Denver case, Alex Young, 25; Karen Bauer, 38; and Leslie Weise, 39, say they were forced out even though they never verbally protested or displayed anti-Bush shirts or signs. The White House has not disputed this.
The three are self-described progressives who arrived at the Denver event with a "No More Blood for Oil" bumper sticker on their car and thoughts of protesting. Young said they had T-shirts saying "Stop the Lies" under their business attire, but decided beforehand not to display them.
When they were entering, they were pulled them aside and told to wait for the Secret Service, Young said. A few minutes later, a man who refused to identify himself warned they would be arrested if they staged any protests. They were allowed to take seats, only to be forced out without explanation about 20 minutes later. The man, who Young described as muscular, about 30, with close-cropped hair, again refused to provide his name or affiliation. A local Secret Service agent told a lawyer representing the three they were targeted because of the bumper sticker.
McClellan said the volunteer had a reason to believe they were planning to protest and rightly removed them. "My understanding is the volunteer was concerned these individuals were going to disrupt the event, so he asked them to leave," McClellan said.
The Secret Service initially launched an investigation in late March to determine if its agents were involved in the incident. It was quickly determined they were not. This week, Mark Hughes, who works for the Secret Service here, contacted the attorneys representing the three people and said agents were flying to Denver for a new phase of the probe.
A person familiar with the probe said the agents are trying to determine whether the man McClellan described as a volunteer was impersonating an agent, a federal crime that carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
The Secret Service stepped up its probe after a member of Congress contacted the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general to request a fuller investigation. If the agents decide a crime was committed, they would forward the information to the Justice Department or U.S. attorney for Denver.
The incident and the identity of the man have become news in parts of Denver. The three Democrats have started a Web site-- denverthree.org -- to press their case, and a local columnist has been hounding the White House for the identity of the "mystery man." "It's day 31. The White House stonewalling continues," Denver Post columnist Diane Carman wrote Thursday.
"I don't think it serves any purpose other than to further their political agenda to get into discussing the volunteer," McClellan said.