Senior staffers for a House committee overseeing the Secret Service have asked the Obama administration to investigate complaints that agency employees circulated private personnel information revealing that the panel’s chairman was once rejected for a job as an agent, according to people familiar with the discussions.
The committee staff referred the issue Thursday to the Department of Homeland Security after receiving whistleblower complaints that Secret Service staff at agency headquarters had circulated potentially unflattering information about Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). He has been an outspoken critic of Secret Service managers after a string of security lapses.
In an interview, Chaffetz confirmed that he unsuccessfully applied for a position as a Secret Service agent in a Western field office. He recalled it was around 2003. He said he had not been granted an interview, and that he thinks he was rejected because he was then, in his mid-30s, too old.
He said he found it “disconcerting to say the least” to learn about the possibility that agency employees were circulating private information.
DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, who oversees the Secret Service, told The Washington Post in a telephone interview late Thursday that the complaints should be “fully investigated.”
“If and to the extent the matters reflected in this report are accurate, then the United States Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security owe the member of Congress an apology,” Johnson said. He added: “If true, those responsible should be held accountable.”
Johnson and Secret Service Director Joseph P. Clancy each called Chaffetz late Thursday night to personally apologize for the release of details of his Secret Service application and committed to helping find out how it happened and who was involved.
In 2003, Chaffetz had been working in corporate communications, and that year he became chief of staff to then-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., according to Chaffetz’s biography on his official Web site. Chaffetz’s rejection was first reported Thursday night by the Daily Beast.
“I won’t be intimidated, but I’m sure that’s what it’s intended to do,” he said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking Democratic member of the committee, called the allegations “disturbing” and agreed with Johnson that they must be thoroughly investigated.
“If that’s true, I find it appalling,” Cummings said. “There is absolutely no room for this kind of activity in the Secret Service… If true, it simply continues to erode the credibility of one of our most important agencies.”
Congressional staffers said Thursday that DHS Inspector General John Roth’s office is reviewing the complaints to determine if they merit a formal inquiry. Roth’s office is already investigating a March 4 incident in which two senior Secret Service agents drove into the scene of an active bomb investigation.
Tension between the Secret Service and the House committee has escalated in recent days as Chaffetz and other members have sought additional information regarding the incident.
Chaffetz issued subpoenas this week for two Secret Service employees, sparking concern from Johnson that the House committee was going too far by subjecting mid-level agency staff to public scrutiny.
Administration officials have said they have been forthcoming, noting that Clancy has spent hours testifying before Chaffetz’s committee and providing documents.
The information about Chaffetz’s rejection has been circulated at Secret Service headquarters and in field offices, starting within days of a contentious March 24 hearing in which Chaffetz grilled Clancy, according to five current and former government officials who have been provided the details about Chaffetz’s background. These people requested anonymity to discuss internal Secret Service discussions.
One official said that the materials included a copy of a parody poster that pictured Chaffetz leading a hearing on the Secret Service from the dais, with the headline “Got BQA from the Service in 2003” at the top and a line at the bottom that read “Elected to Congress in 2009.” In the Secret Service, “BQA” is an acronym meaning a “Better Qualified Applicant” was available.