Secret Service scandal takes sharp political turn

ALICIA A. CALDWELL Associated Press Published:

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The prostitution scandal at the Secret Service took a sharp political turn Wednesday as presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said he would fire the agents involved and suggested a lack of leadership led to the incident. In Washington and Colombia, site of the incident involving agents, military personnel and at least 20 women, separate U.S. government investigations into the episode were already under way.

"I'd clean house," Romney told radio host Laura Ingraham. "The right thing to do is to remove people who have violated the public trust and have put their play time and their personal interests ahead of the interests of the nation."

While Romney suggested to Ingraham that a leadership problem led to the scandal, he told a Columbus, Ohio, radio station that he has confidence in Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan.

"I believe the right corrective action will be taken there and obviously everyone is very, very disappointed," Romney said. "I think it will be dealt with (in) as aggressive a way as is possible given the requirements of the law."

The Romney campaign would not say whether he had been briefed on the situation or was relying upon media reports for details.

The scandal, which has become an election-year embarrassment for the Obama administration, erupted last week after 11 Secret Service agents were sent home from Cartagena, Colombia, after a night of partying that reportedly ended with at least some of them bringing prostitutes back to their hotel. The special agents and uniformed officers were in Colombia in advance of President Barack Obama's arrival for the Summit of the Americas. They have been suspended and the agency has revoked their security clearance.

At least 10 military personnel who were staying at the same hotel are also being investigated for alleged misconduct.

Two U.S. military officials have said they include five Army Green Berets. One of the officials said the group also includes two Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal technicians, two Marine dog handlers and an Air Force airman. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is still under way.

Exact details of what happened at the Hotel Caribe are still unclear, but multiple investigations are under way.

People briefed on the incident have said the agents brought women back to the Cartagena hotel, where other members of the U.S. delegation and the White House press corps also were staying. Overnight visitors were required to leave identification at the front desk and leave by 7 a.m. When one woman hadn't left, by one account, it raised questions among hotel staff and police, who investigated. They found the woman with the agent in a hotel room and a dispute arose over whether the agent should have paid her.

Secret Service's Office of Professional Responsibility, which handles that agency's internal affairs, is investigating and the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General has been notified.

Sullivan, who this week has briefed lawmakers behind closed doors, said he has referred to the case to an independent government investigator.

Col. Scott Malcom, a spokesman of U.S. Southern Command, which organized the military team assigned to support the Secret Service's mission in Cartagena, said Wednesday that an Air Force colonel is leading the military investigation and arrived in Colombia with a military lawyer Tuesday morning.

The troops are suspected of violating curfews set by their commanders.

"They were either not in their room or they showed up to their room late while all this was going on or they were in their room with somebody who shouldn't be there," Malcom said.

Numerous lawmakers have called for a thorough investigation and have suggested that hearings may be in order, though none has yet been scheduled.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that for now, he is interested in what actually happened. He did not address how much responsibility Obama should bear or whether Congress should hold hearings.

The scandal is expected to come up next week on Wednesday when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a previously scheduled oversight hearing.


Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman, Julie Pace and Steve Peoples in Washington and Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.