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Secret Service chief may have misled on scandal: senator

By Tabassum Zakaria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Republican senator on Friday accused the head of the Secret Service of making potentially misleading statements to Congress about a prostitution scandal involving agency employees before a presidential trip to Colombia in April.

Senator Ron Johnson, the senior Republican on the Homeland Security subcommittee on oversight of government management, issued a memo detailing his concerns about Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan's statements to Congress on May 23.

"There are discrepancies between public statements and information uncovered in the independent investigation led by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General that suggest the administration misled or withheld information from Congress," Johnson said in the 9-page memo to the full Homeland Security Committee.

Johnson said he issued the memo after his staff reviewed the inspector general's investigation report on the scandal, which has not been publicly released. His memo came three weeks before the November 6 elections and appeared to irk others on the panel.

Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, an independent, while not mentioning Johnson by name said: "This unauthorized leak of sensitive, selective information from the IG's report is unfair to the United States Secret Service and its director, Mark Sullivan."

In the biggest scandal to ever hit the agency, about a dozen Secret Service employees were accused of misconduct for bringing women, some of them prostitutes, back to their hotel rooms ahead of a visit by President Barack Obama to Cartagena, Colombia.

Sullivan told Congress the names of the foreign women had been sent to U.S. intelligence agencies but no connections to terrorist, human trafficking or drug cartel organizations were found.

But the inspector general's investigation found that two of the women got "hits" in the intelligence community database, Johnson said in his memo. On further review one woman was found not to match the one in the database, while the other was "still of concern," Johnson said.

A Secret Service official said Sullivan had been briefed prior to the congressional hearing that checks of the women's names against national security and law enforcement databases in the United States and Colombia, "had yielded no derogatory information."

'MORE PREVALENT'

At that hearing, in closed-door briefings, as well as a one-on-one meeting in his office in June, Johnson said he was given assurances that events in Cartagena were "a singular occurrence for the Secret Service."

But the inspector general's investigation revealed that "solicitation of prostitutes may be more prevalent than Congress was led to believe, and that there may be a culture of acceptance" inside of the Secret Service, Johnson said.

During the inspector general's investigation, one Secret Service agent involved in misconduct in Cartagena reported having solicited prostitutes both in El Salvador and Panama in 2008 to 2009, Johnson said.

A Secret Service official said that agent had previously told the Secret Service office of professional responsibility that he had not had any prior contact with prostitutes.

"The investigation further uncovered allegations of similar misconduct in China and Romania," Johnson's memo said. The inspector general investigation has also found that at least 11 Secret Service personnel admitted to having knowledge of similar misconduct occurring on other occasions, the memo said.

"Director Mark Sullivan and the Secret Service have conducted a fair and thorough investigation resulting from the Cartagena incident," Secret Service spokesman Edwin Donovan said on Friday. "The agency response to those with oversight responsibility has been timely and truthful ..."

The inspector general reviewed Secret Service reports of contact with foreign nationals between December 16, 2008 and June 15, 2012 and found that before the Cartagena incident there were 105 reports of contact with foreign nationals, while after the incident 423 new reports of contact with foreign nationals were filed, Johnson's memo said.

"The nature of these foreign contacts is unclear," it said.

Johnson also criticized Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano for inaction since receiving the report about phase one of the inspector general's investigation on September 26, which did not include any recommendations.

"It seems to me that a Cabinet-level secretary wouldn't need a recommendation to determine if action should be taken on the troubling findings in that report," Johnson said in a statement.

"The Department's General Counsel received the OIG's Report of Investigation regarding the conduct of U.S. Secret Service personnel in Cartagena, Colombia. The report reviewed allegations of personnel misconduct and found that 13 agents had engaged in misconduct," Department of Homeland Security spokesman Matthew Chandler said.

"The U.S. Secret Service had already taken appropriate action against these employees" prior to the completion of the inspector general's report of investigation, he said.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Paul Simao)

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