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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. Secret Service, in his first public appearance since a Colombian prostitution scandal involving his employees surfaced last month, apologized for the misconduct on Wednesday as lawmakers expressed doubt it was an isolated incident.
Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan, gray-haired in a blue striped suit and tie, faced the Senate Homeland Security Committee and asserted that the behavior of a dozen employees in Cartagena in April did not reflect the culture of the agency that protects the president.
But Senator Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the committee, said a review of Secret Service records showed that over the past five years there were 64 instances of "allegations or complaints concerning sexual misconduct ... against employees."
In the biggest scandal to hit the agency, a dozen Secret Service employees were accused of misconduct for bringing women, some of them prostitutes, back to their hotel rooms in Colombia, ahead of a visit by President Barack Obama.
"I am deeply disappointed and I apologize for the misconduct of these employees and the distraction that it has caused," Sullivan said.
"Over the past several weeks, we have been under intense scrutiny as a result of this incident. To see the agency's integrity called into question has not been easy," he added.
Sullivan generally has been praised by lawmakers for acting swiftly and the White House has stood by him. None of the senators at the hearing called for him to step down.
But Senator Susan Collins, the senior Republican on the committee, and others said they found it difficult to believe the misconduct was an isolated incident, and she faulted Sullivan on that score.
"The only answer of his that disturbed me today was that he kept saying over and over again that he basically does think this is an isolated incident. I don't think he has any basis for that conclusion," Collins told reporters afterward.
Lieberman, an independent, said most of the 64 allegations or complaints of sexual misconduct in the past five years involved sexually explicit emails or sexually explicit material being sent on government computers. But three incidents, Lieberman said, "involved charges of an inappropriate relationship with a foreign national and one was a complaint of nonconsensual sexual intercourse."
Another incident involved a Secret Service employee soliciting a prostitute who turned out to be an undercover police officer in Washington, Lieberman said.
An older incident involved several Secret Service employees who were disciplined for "partying with alcohol with underage females in their hotel rooms while on assignment" at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Lieberman said.
Regarding the Colombia incident, Sullivan said the actions of a few should not taint the whole agency and its roughly 7,000 employees, and he pushed back on any suggestion that such behavior was considered acceptable when agents were on the road.
"The thought or the notion that this type of behavior is condoned or authorized is just absurd, in my opinion," said Sullivan, who has worked nearly 30 years at the Secret Service.
"I never one time had any supervisor or any other agent tell me that this type of behavior is condoned. I know I've never told any of our employees that it's condoned," he said.
Obama has called the Secret Service employees involved in the scandal "knuckleheads" and maintained that the vast majority of agents perform their work admirably.
The Washington Post, citing unnamed sources, reported that four of the employees involved in the incident are challenging their dismissals, saying the Secret Service has made them scapegoats for behavior that previously had been tolerated.
Sullivan told the committee that the agency's numbers differed: "We have two employees who had originally said that they were going to resign, that have now come back and said that they are going to challenge that."
In addition to the two who rescinded their resignations, seven Secret Service employees retired, resigned, were fired or are in the process of having their security clearance permanently revoked because of the scandal.
Three others were cleared and a 13th employee is on administrative leave after reporting his own potential misconduct in a separate incident.
Collins said there was no excuse for "recklessness" and that the Secret Service employees had "willingly made themselves potential targets" who could easily have been drugged, kidnapped or blackmailed. Sullivan said no secret information had been compromised because of the incident.
Sullivan listened to senator after senator express concern. The agency's reputation was "badly stained" by the "sordid story," Lieberman said.
Lieberman and Collins, who were among lawmakers briefed on the incident, described the evening in mid-April when the men, in separate groups of two to four, went to different nightclubs and strip clubs, drinking alcohol heavily.
They returned to their hotel with women, some of whom were prostitutes, and registered them under their actual names as overnight guests as required by hotel rules.
"If one of the agents had not argued with one of the women about how much he owed her, the world would never have known this sordid story," Lieberman said.
Senator Scott Brown, a Republican, pressed Sullivan about some of the new rules announced by the agency since the scandal surfaced, such as sending a senior employee to supervise behavior on trips.
"I'm a little bit confused as to why we would be sending a $155,000 (annual salary) person, another person to basically babysit people that you say this hasn't happened before," Brown said.
A dozen U.S. military personnel also are under investigation in connection with the prostitution scandal in Colombia.
Charles Edwards, the acting inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the Secret Service, told the hearing he would conduct an independent investigation into the events in Cartagena.
Writing by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Will Dunham