Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan testified Wednesday in front of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee -- the first time he spoke publicly about the prostitution scandal involving agents in Cartagena, Colombia. NBC's Pete Williams reports.
The alleged hiring of prostitutes suggests a cultural problem within the Secret Service, Sen. Susan Collins said Wednesday amid reports of new evidence of law enforcement misconduct during the president's trip to Colombia.
"This was not a one-time event," Collins, the senior Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said during the first Senate hearing on the matter. "The circumstances unfortunately suggest an issue of culture."
"If only one or two individuals out of the 160 male Secret Service personnel assigned to this mission had engaged in this type of serious misconduct, then I'd think this was an aberration," the Maine senator said. "But that's not the case; there were 12 individuals involved . . . 12. That's 8 percent of the male Secret Service personnel in-country, and 9 percent of those staying at the El Caribe Hotel."
Service Service chief Mark Sullivan, who was called to testify at the inquiry, apologized "for the conduct of these employees and the distraction it has caused." But Sullivan's assertion that the agency has a "zero tolerance" policy on such conduct did not convince the lawmakers, who brought more allegations to light.
"We can only know what the records of the Secret Service reveal," said Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is leading the hearing. The records, however incomplete, show 64 instances of allegations or complaints of sexual misconduct made against Secret Service employees in the last five years, he said.
Lieberman cited three complaints of inappropriate relationships with a foreign national and one of "non-consensual intercourse," which he did not elaborate on. Sullivan said that complaint was investigated by outside law enforcement officers who decided not to prosecute.
A Columbian escort spoke publicly on the radio this week claiming to be the one at the center of the Secret Service prostitution scandal and revealing her version of events. NBC's Mark Potter reports.
Sullivan also told the committee an agent was fired in a 2008 Washington prostitution episode, after trying to hire an uncover police officer.
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.
NBC News national investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
More content from msnbc.com and NBC News:
- White supremacist gets 40 years for Arizona bomb attack
- Staff bled $44 million in gifts from heiress, suit says
- Utah man: Roommates tortured me with power tool, knives
- Mountain lion shot, killed after prowling Santa Monica shopping mall