WASHINGTON, DC – Seeking to shake the disgrace of a prostitution scandal, the Secret Service late on Friday tightened conduct rules for its agents to prohibit them from drinking excessively, visiting disreputable establishments while traveling or bringing foreigners to their hotel rooms.
The new behaviour policies apply to Secret Service agents even when they are off duty while traveling, barring them from drinking alcohol within 10 hours of working, according to a memorandum describing the changes obtained by The Associated Press. In some cases under the new rules, chaperones will accompany agents on trips. The embattled Secret Service director, Mark Sullivan, urged agents and other employees to “consider your conduct through the lens of the past several weeks.”
The Secret Service said it would conduct a training session on ethics next week.
Mr Sullivan said the rules “cannot address every situation that our employees will face as we execute our dual-missions throughout the world.” He added: “The absence of a specific, published standard of conduct covering an act or behaviour does not mean that the act is condoned, is permissible, or will not call for – and result in – corrective or disciplinary action.”
“All employees have a continuing obligation to confront expected abuses or perceived misconduct,” Mr Sullivan said.
The agency-wide changes were intended to staunch the embarrassing disclosures since April 13, when a prostitution scandal erupted in Colombia involving 12 Secret Service agents, officers and supervisors and 12 more enlisted military personnel who were there ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit to a South American summit.
But the new policies announced on Friday raised questions about claims that the behaviour discovered in Cartagena was an isolated incident: Why would the Secret Service formally issue new regulations covering thousands of employees if such activities were a one-time occurrence?
“It’s too bad common sense policy has to be dictated in this manner,” said Senator Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “New conduct rules are necessary to preventing more shenanigans from happening in the future, and whether these are the best, and most cost effective, rules to stop future misconduct remains to be seen.”
The new rules did not mention prostitutes or strip clubs, but they prohibit employees from allowing foreigners – except hotel staff or foreign law enforcement colleagues – into their hotel rooms. They also ban visits to “non-reputable” establishments, which were not defined. The State Department was expected to brief Secret Service employees on trips about areas and businesses considered off-limits to them.
During trips in which the presidential limousine and other bulletproof vehicles are transported by plane, senior-level chaperones will accompany agents and enforce conduct rules, including one from the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility.
In a Wonderland moment, the operator of the “Lips” strip club in San Salvador, Dan Ertel, organised a news conference late on Friday and said he didn’t know whether any Secret Service employees were among his customers. Mr Ertel said the club was the only one in the country where prostitutes don’t work. But a dancer who identified herself by her stage name, Yajaira, told the AP earlier in the day that she would have sex with customers for money after her shift ended.
“You can pay for dances, touch a little, but there’s no sex,” she said. “But if somebody wants, if they pay me enough, we can do it after I leave at 3 in the morning.”
The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Republican Peter King, R-N.Y., praised the new rules as “very positive steps by the Secret Service to make clear what is expected of every agent and also makes clear what will not be tolerated.”
The Secret Service already has forced eight employees from their jobs and was seeking to revoke the security clearance of another employee, which would effectively force him to resign. Three others have been cleared of serious wrongdoing. The military was conducting its own, separate investigation but cancelled the security clearances of all 12 enlisted personnel.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano assured senators earlier this week that the incident in Colombia appeared to be an isolated case, saying she would be surprised if it represented a broader cultural problem. The next day, the Secret Service acknowledged it was investigating whether its employees hired strippers and prostitutes in advance of Obama’s visit last year to El Salvador. Prostitution is legal in both Colombia and El Salvador.
In a confidential message to senators on Thursday, the Secret Service said its Office of Professional Responsibility had not received complaints about officer behaviour in El Salvador but would investigate.
“Fifteen years in business, it’s the one club in this country that does not prostitute the girls,” said Mr Ertel, the owner of Lips, at his news conference. “Look, every guy that comes in there propositions the girls, and the answer is always going to be ‘no.’ Was there Secret Service in there? I have no idea.”
On Capitol Hill, early signs surfaced of eroding support for the Secret Service director. Mr Grassley said Mr Sullivan’s job could be secure if the scandal were an isolated incident. “But if it goes much deeper, you know, nothing happens or nothing’s changed in Washington if heads don’t roll,” Mr Grassley said on CBS “This Morning.”
A member of the House Homeland Security Committee, Republican Chip Cravaack, R-Minn., warned against a “knee-jerk reaction” and urged a full investigation. But he compared Mr Sullivan as the agency’s director to the captain of a foundering ship: “I’m a Navy guy,” he said. “The captain of the ship can be in his cabin sleeping and if the ship runs aground the captain of the ship is responsible. I’m not saying anybody’s head should roll here, but I expect the captain of the ship to do the right thing.”
The White House said on Friday that the president remained supportive of Mr Sullivan and confident in the capabilities of the Secret Service.
The fallout from the scandal remained raw. When an AP reporter on Friday visited the home in Maryland of Gregory Stokes, who lost his job in the agency’s first round of disciplinary action, someone in the home called police, who asked the AP to leave his property.