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04.30.12

Secret Service Targeted by Independent Watchdog

After largely handling an investigation into agents’ alleged Colombia trysts on its own, the Secret Service will be finally be under the microscope of a separate agency. Aram Roston on the new probe.

The alleged nighttime escapades of the Secret Service agents in Colombia are more than just an embarrassment. They may be the kind of scandal that requires a thorough investigation untainted by even the suspicion of bias. 

So a number of Washington lawyers are wondering, why is the Secret Service largely investigating itself? 

At the moment, the agency’s internal-affairs division, the Office of Professional Responsibility, has been interviewing witnesses and reviewing records. And an independent federal watchdog with full authority to investigate the Secret Service—the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General—is mostly just observing from a distance.

“All I can say is, if I was the IG, I would be engaged,” says Richard L. Skinner, who did serve as the Homeland Security inspector general from 2006 through 2011. “I would be actively engaged in this whole thing. That’s what the IG is there for.” He emphasizes that he has no knowledge of the current level of OIG involvement, since he is retired.

“I think it is a legitimate question,” Skinner tells The Daily Beast. “Why isn’t the IG taking the lead?” 

Glenn Fine, a former inspector general for the Department of Justice, agrees that outside investigators may be required. “It’s difficult for an agency to investigate itself,” he told The Daily Beast. 

An OIG spokeswoman says her agency isn’t supervising the probe but is “closely monitoring” it. Those independent investigators, however, are not sitting in on the interviews of witnesses or the agents who were involved, according to a source who has been briefed.  

Why not? 

There may be several answers. One theory on Capitol Hill is this: the watchdog itself may be caught up in its own crisis. The head of the OIG hasn’t been confirmed in his position, and his office, which is supposed to investigate and audit the entire $55 billion Department of Homeland Security, is ensnared in an unusual criminal investigation. 

In other words, the investigators for Homeland Security who might have been leading a Secret Service probe are themselves under criminal investigation by yet another agency, the FBI.

That probe was confirmed four weeks ago in a Homeland Security press release that cited “an investigation by the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation.” 

The case concerns allegations around a fumbled series of corruption inquiries into Customs and Border Protection officers on the Mexican border. It’s unclear what exactly is under investigation, and the FBI declined to comment, but it’s an unusual, if not unprecedented, situation for an IG office to face a criminal probe into its work.

Indeed, the head of investigations, who handles all criminal cases at the OIG, is on administrative leave while the FBI continues investigating. He, presumably, would be the one who could have overseen any Secret Service investigation. 

“Maybe this is why they are not letting the DHS investigate,” said one Capitol Hill aide who is familiar with both the Secret Service and the OIG cases. He said he believes the IG’s office is so shaken by the FBI probe that it may be unwilling to step in fully to take over the Secret Service investigation. 

Skinner, the former IG, says he’s skeptical that the criminal investigation is the reason for OIG’s limited involvement in the Secret Service probe. “You should not allow that to have an impact,” he said. “I cannot comprehend that the IG would be scared to stand up because there is an internal investigation.” 

Marty Metelko, a spokeswoman for the Office of Inspector General, said the agency will decide what to do after the Secret Service finishes off its own probe. “Until the investigation is complete,” she tells The Daily Beast, “we can’t take the next step.” 

As for whether its own criminal probe is the reason the OIG isn’t being more aggressive, she said: “I have no comment to make on that.”  

“I cannot comprehend that the IG would be scared to stand up because there is an internal investigation.”

An official at the Secret Service, requesting that his name not be used, says the agency is doing the investigation under a memorandum of agreement with the Homeland Security OIG.

Skinner says he is familiar with that document; he says it outlines how the Secret Service investigates lower-level employees and administrative violations, while the OIG has oversight of more-serious crimes and higher-level employees. “This is more than administrative,” he said, “wouldn’t you say? More than administrative: you have to handle this as a very serious potential security breach. This is a very serious matter.”