Some Secret Service employees accused of misconduct in the Colombian prostitution scandal are privately contending that their conduct didn’t warrant dismissal because senior managers tolerated similar behavior during official trips, according to people familiar with the employees’ thinking.
Several of the men who agreed to resign under pressure last week are also considering reversing their decisions and fighting to keep their jobs, said the people knowledgeable about the case.
The prospect of Secret Service agents sharing embarrassing tales about rank-and-file employees and superiors partying to the hilt could bring more anguish to an agency reeling from scandal.
Those close to the accused employees said that in an effort to fight for their jobs they could opt to divulge details of how colleagues spent some of their downtime on presidential trips — drinking heavily, visiting strip clubs and cavorting with women for hire.
“Of course it has happened before” said one agent not implicated in the matter, remarking on the Secret Service’s history of occasionally licentious partying. “This is not the first time. It really only blew up in this case because the [U.S. Embassy] was alerted.”
In a statement Tuesday, Assistant Director Paul S. Morrissey said the service “is committed to conducting a full, thorough and fair investigation in this matter, and will not hesitate to take appropriate action should any additional information come to light.”
President Obama, visiting the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Tuesday, faced questions from late-night host Jimmy Fallon about the quality of the president’s protectors. Obama stressed that the actions of a few should not overshadow the dedication of the agency.
“The Secret Service, these guys are incredible,” Obama said, according to a press pool report of his visit. “They protect me, they protect our girls. A couple of knuckleheads shouldn’t detract from what they do. What they were thinking, I don’t know. That’s why they’re not there anymore.”
Twelve Secret Service employees and 11 military service members have been implicated in the misconduct ahead of Obama’s trip this month to Cartagena, Colombia, for an economic summit. The men are accused of heavy drinking, visits to strip clubs and payments to prostitutes.
Last week, the agency moved to oust six of the service’s employees, including two supervisors, and cleared a seventh of serious misconduct. On Tuesday, it made decisions on the other five, saying that two more had agreed to resign, two would retain their service employment but face demotion, and another would be recommended for dismissal but could work for other federal agencies.
Lawrence Berger, attorney for several employees who were recommended for removal, declined to comment on his clients’ cases.
As the investigation continues, differing accounts have emerged about the men’s alleged behavior on the night of April 11 and morning of April 12. Congressional officials briefed on the investigation have said some of the men argued that they did not know the women were prostitutes when they brought them back to the Hotel Caribe, where they were lodging, not far from the Hilton where Obama was scheduled to stay.
In an internal employee-only briefing Tuesday, Secret Service security officials said that not all of the men may have had sexual encounters with prostitutes, according to a person familiar with the briefing. But the officials said that the employees implicated in Cartagena violated policy simply by soliciting prostitutes and negotiating prices for services, whether they received the services or not. In Colombia, prostitution is legal, but hotel guests are often asked to pay a fee if an additional guest joins them overnight.
The people familiar with the accused employees said some of them have said there was no sexual activity because the men were so drunk that they fell asleep immediately after bringing the women to their rooms.
Agents not involved in the Colombia trip, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss matters publicly, said the events in Cartagena may be embarrassing, but they are not without precedent. They pointed to a 2009 visit to Buenos Aires by former President Bill Clinton, whose protective detail included agents and uniformed officers. During that trip, the agents said, members of the detail went out for a late night of partying at strip clubs.
“You take a bunch of guys out of the country and have a lot of women showering them with attention, bad things are bound to happen,” one agent said.
The scandal has been a deep blow to morale among current and former agents, who feel tarred by the behavior of the relatively small group of men, said James Huse Jr. , a former assistant director. He called the alleged misconduct “an egregious failure on the part of those people involved.”
One former agent disputed the suggestion that agents and officers accused of misdeeds in Cartagena risked impairing their abilities to perform their assignments after Obama arrived two days later. “Some guys could have a good time Wednesday night, and Friday morning they would be on their post, shaved and ready to go,” said this person, who emphasized that he does not condone paying prostitutes for sex.
Huse said he is particularly dumbfounded that the men partied so openly during an era when smartphones and social media can so easily spread details of misbehavior. “We live in different age that makes the behavior of these people more impossible to comprehend,” he said. “What were they thinking?”
Staff writer Justin Jouvenal and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.