Secret Service expands misconduct probe to El Salvador

WASHINGTON Thu Apr 26, 2012 9:16pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Secret Service is examining a new report of alleged misconduct by agents at an El Salvador strip club ahead of a trip there last year by President Barack Obama, senior lawmakers said on Thursday.

Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan is looking into the report but has so far not found anything "credible" to back it up, Representative Elijah Cummings told reporters outside the U.S. House of Representatives.

Cummings is the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He said he and the panel's chairman, Republican Darrell Issa, spoke with Sullivan by telephone on Thursday afternoon.

Representative Peter King, a Republican who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said earlier the agency's review is part of an extensive investigation the Secret Service is conducting in the aftermath of an incident involving prostitutes in Colombia.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters the agency is also looking into the El Salvador allegations, aired Thursday in a report by Seattle channel KIRO-TV, part of the CBS-Cox media group.

In the television interview, an anonymous U.S. contractor described visiting a San Salvador strip club that offers sexual favors with some Secret Service agents and U.S. military specialists in advance of Obama's March, 2011, visit.

The report said high-ranking U.S. Embassy employees also "routinely" visited the strip club.

"Obviously, we will inquire of our Embassy in San Salvador with regard to the conduct of our own employees. But the article alleges that they attended the establishment, not that they engaged in any illegal or unsanctioned conduct," Nuland said.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, on a visit to Chile, said the Defense Department had no ongoing investigation "at this point in time" into the El Salvador allegations.

Interest in the El Salvador allegations came a day after U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano assured lawmakers that no Secret Service misconduct similar to the recent carousing in Cartagena, Colombia, had been reported in the last two and a half years.

ALLEGED MISCONDUCT FOR YEARS

Senator Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said Thursday he was disappointed to learn of the latest allegations.

"I keep running into people who say they have talked to agents who tell them of misconduct of this kind over the years," he said. Lieberman plans to hold hearings into whether there was a pattern of such behavior.

A Secret Service spokesman said Thursday the agency would pursue any "credible" information brought to its attention.

"The recent investigation in Cartagena has generated several news stories that contain allegations by mostly unnamed sources. Any information brought to our attention that can be assessed as credible will be followed up on in an appropriate manner," the spokesman said.

Cummings said Sullivan told him and Issa the Secret Service had been in contact with the Seattle TV reporter on the story and had also contacted the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador about it.

"He had not found anything credible, but he's still looking into it," Cummings said.

Napolitano said Wednesday that records kept by the Secret Service Office of Professional Responsibility showed no recent episodes similar to the events in Cartagena. Agents and military service members are accused of spending the night of April 11 partying at a bar before bringing up to 21 women back to hotels.

That episode was exposed the next morning when one woman complained she was not paid enough money. Twelve agents and 12 military service members were linked to the incident.

The Secret Service, which is attached to the Department of Homeland Security, has reviewed the cases of all 12 of its implicated agents.

Eight of them are now gone, three were cleared of serious misconduct and one is being stripped of his security clearance, which would prevent the agent from working at the agency.

U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a member of the Homeland Security and Judiciary committees, told CNN on Thursday night the Secret Service planned administrative changes in response to the Colombia scandal.

New policy steps would prohibit agents from hosting foreign nationals in their rooms and going on outings that could become problematic. Also, special officers would accompany agents on future foreign trips to oversee professionalism, Lee said.

A Secret Service official said the investigation was still ongoing and while it was clear there will be some type of administrative changes, that would be addressed at a later time.

"We can anticipate there will be changes. We're not going to comment on what changes at this time," the official said.

Lee said she was drafting legislation to address issues related to the scandal.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, David Alexander, Phil Stewart and John Crawley; editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Todd Eastham)

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