The head of the US Secret Service has refuted senators' claims that a recent sex scandal in Colombia exposed a culture of misconduct.
Director Mark Sullivan told a congressional hearing that the behavior of agents in Cartagena, Colombia, was "not representative" of the Service's "high ethical standards."
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He was responding to accusations from members of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that the scandal – in which agents allegedly hired prostitutes ahead of a mission to protect President Barack Obama – was not an isolated incident.
"This was not a one-time event," claimed Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), according to The Guardian's live blog. "The circumstances unfortunately suggest an issue of culture."
She said that several groups of Secret Service employees had visited Colombian bars and brothels prior to Obama's visit, and the fact that two of the agents sacked over the scandal were supervisors sent "a message to the rank and file that this kind of activity is tolerated."
Meanwhile committee chair Joe Lieberman (Independent) refered to 64 allegations of sexual misconduct against the Service in the last five years, the BBC reported. Sullivan admitted that one agent in Washington DC was dismissed in 2008 after soliciting a woman he believed to be a prostitute, but who was in fact an undercover police officer. The agent was on duty at the time.
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Secret Service staff are "among the most dedicated, hardest-working, self-sacrificing employees within the federal government," Sullivan insisted in his prepared testimony.
He said agents received regular ethics training, and, in the wake of Cartagena, were subject to stricter codes of conduct including limits on alcohol consumption and a ban on visiting "non-reputable establishments."
The Washington Post reported today that four of the eight Secret Service employees who were sacked over the scandal plan to fight their dismissals, arguing that they were unfairly scapegoated.
According to the Post: "Current and former agency employees say sexual encounters during official travel had been condoned under an unwritten code that allows what happens on the road to stay there."
Asked about the report, Sullivan said it was difficult for the Service to investigate allegations made by anonymous sources.
Watch a live stream of the hearing here.
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