White House tries to deal with scandals

Tue, Apr 24, 2012, 01:00

THE WHITE House has offered contrasting reactions to sex and corruption scandals which have shaken up two official agencies.

It has roundly condemned the misuse of taxpayers’ funds at the US General Services Administration, the central clearing house for government supplies, but reserved judgment on at least 23 secret service and military officers accused of hiring 21 prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia, two weeks ago.

Eleven of 12 secret service agents involved in the Colombian scandal have resigned, retired or gone on leave. Eleven members of the army, marine corps, navy and air force have been dispatched to their home bases while the investigation continues.

On April 11th, two nights before US president Barack Obama was due to arrive in Cartagena for the Summit of the Americas, members of the advance team embarked on an alcohol and sex binge in strip clubs and in their rooms at the Hotel Caribe.

Their behaviour became known because one of them got involved in a dispute with a prostitute over payment.

At least 11 of the disgraced officers were replaced before Mr Obama arrived in Cartagena. The president’s security was “never compromised”, White House press secretary Jay Carney said.

In television interviews, Peter King, chairman of the House of Representatives homeland security committee, and Darrell Issa, chairman of the House committee on oversight and government reform, said their greatest concern was that foreign nationals had been allowed into a “secure area”.

This was compounded by the weekend revelation that one of the accused lodged not at the Caribe but at the Hilton, where Mr Obama was to sleep during the summit.

At least seven investigations have been launched by the secret service, department of homeland security, the military and congressional committees. Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, is expected to testify about the scandal before the Senate judiciary committee tomorrow.

The White House has been reluctant to criticise the secret service because its bodyguards risk their lives to protect the president, the New York Times reported yesterday. The secret service has provided guards for Mr Obama since he became a presidential candidate five years ago.

“The president does have faith in the secret service and high regard for the agency and the job that they do protecting him, his family,” Mr Carney said.

The presidential guard did “an enormously difficult job”, he added, “putting your life on the line regularly, being willing to sacrifice yourself for the sake not just of an individual, but for the trauma that any kind of harm . . . would cause a nation”.

The harshest criticism has come from former US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. One of Ms Palin’s former bodyguards, David Randall Chaney, was forced to retire last week because of his part in the scandal, after almost two decades in the secret service.

Mr Chaney had posted photographs of himself with Ms Palin on Facebook, with the words “I was really checking her out, if you know what i mean?” as a caption.

“Well, check this out bodyguard – you’re fired!” Ms Palin said on Fox News.

Ms Palin managed to conflate the scandal with the “dog war” sparked by reports of Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s treatment of his Irish setter Seamus. Mr Obama has more recently been criticised for eating dog meat as a child in Indonesia.

“I hope his wife sends him to the doghouse,” Ms Palin said of Mr Chaney, “as long as he’s not eating the dog, along with his former boss.”

Ms Palin said it was time for Mr Obama to “start cracking down on these agencies”. Mr Obama has been accused of neglecting his duties to campaign for re-election. “It’s like, who’s minding the store around here?” Ms Palin added.

In a parallel scandal, the General Services Administration was found to have spent $823,000 (€626,000) on a conference in Las Vegas in October 2010 that included luxury hotel suites, a mind reader and in-room parties.

David Axelrod, one of Mr Obama’s senior advisers, said the president was “apoplectic” about the revelations because his administration had made such an effort “to cut waste, inefficiency, fraud against government”.

The Las Vegas case was the tip of the iceberg. Administration inspector general Brian Miller reported to congress that 64 prosecutions of its employees for inflating costs or outright theft in 2010-2011 returned $376 million to the agency.