WASHINGTON, D.C. – As nearly two dozen Secret Service agents and members of the military were punished or fired following a 2012 prostitution scandal in Colombia, Obama administration officials repeatedly denied that anyone from the White House was involved.
But new details drawn from government documents and interviews show that senior White House aides were given information at the time suggesting that a prostitute was an overnight guest in the hotel room of a presidential advance-team member — yet that information was never thoroughly investigated or publicly acknowledged.
The information that the Secret Service shared with the White House included hotel records and firsthand accounts — the same types of evidence the agency and military relied on to determine who in their ranks was involved.
The Secret Service shared its findings twice in the weeks after the scandal with top White House officials, including then-White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler. Each time, she and other presidential aides conducted an interview with the advance-team member and concluded that he had done nothing wrong.
Meanwhile, the new details also show that a separate set of investigators in the inspector general’s office of the Department of Homeland Security — tasked by a Senate committee with digging more deeply into misconduct on the trip — found additional evidence from records and eyewitnesses who had accompanied the team member in Colombia.
The lead investigator later told Senate staffers that he felt pressure from his superiors in the office of Charles Edwards, who was then the acting inspector general, to withhold evidence — and that, in the heat of an election year, decisions were being made with political considerations in mind.
“We were directed at the time … to delay the report of the investigation until after the 2012 election,” David Nieland, the lead investigator on the Colombia case for the DHS inspector general’s office, told Senate staffers, according to three people with knowledge of his statement.
Nieland added that his superiors told him “to withhold and alter certain information in the report of investigation because it was potentially embarrassing to the administration.”
Edwards told Senate staffers that any changes to the report were part of the normal editing process and that he sought to keep the focus of his investigation on DHS employees, according to statements he made to Senate staffers that are part of the public record.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Wednesday that President Barack Obama and his advisers did not interfere with the inspector general’s investigation. “As was reported more than two years ago, the White House conducted an internal review that did not identify any inappropriate behavior on the part of the White House advance team,” Schultz said. He cited a Senate report on the inspector general’s office from this April that was unable to verify Nieland’s contention that he was ordered to change the report over political concerns.
Whether the White House volunteer, Jonathan Dach, was involved in wrongdoing in Cartagena, Colombia, remains unclear. Dach, then a 25-year-old Yale University law student, declined to be interviewed, but through his attorney he denied hiring a prostitute or bringing anyone to his hotel room. Dach has long made the same denials to White House officials.
Dach this year started working full time in the Obama administration on a federal contract as a policy adviser in the Office on Global Women’s Issues at the State Department.
Dach’s father, Leslie Dach, is a prominent Democratic donor who gave $23,900 to the party in 2008 to help elect Obama. In his previous job, as a top lobbyist for Wal-Mart, he partnered on high-profile projects with the White House, including Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign.
He, too, joined the Obama administration this year. In July, he was named a senior counselor with the Department of Health and Human Services, where part of his responsibilities include handling the next phase of the Affordable Care Act.
Richard Sauber, who represents both Dachs, said that Jonathan Dach denies any involvement in the prostitution scandal and that no one in his family intervened with White House officials or federal investigators.
“The underlying allegations about any inappropriate conduct by Jonathan Dach in Cartagena are utterly and completely false,” Sauber said. “In addition, neither he nor anyone acting on his behalf ever contacted the DHS IG’s office about its report.”
Nevertheless, the question of whether the prostitution scandal reached into the White House had consequences beyond the West Wing.
Within the inspector general’s office, investigators and their bosses fought heatedly with each other over whether to pursue White House team members’ possible involvement. Office staffers who raised questions about a White House role said they were put on administrative leave as a punishment for doing so. Later, Edwards, the acting inspector general, resigned amid allegations of misconduct stemming in part from the dispute.
Also, the way the White House handled the scandal remains a sore point among rank-and-file members of the Secret Service more than two years later.
Former and current Secret Service agents said they are angry at the White House’s public insistence that none of its team members were involved and its private decision to not fully investigate one of its own — while their colleagues had their careers ruined or hampered.
Ten members of the Secret Service — ranging from younger, lower-level officers assigned to rope-line security to seasoned members of a counterassault team — lost their jobs because of their actions in Cartagena. The agents were told that they jeopardized national security by drinking excessively and having contact with foreign nationals.
They were treated “radically differently by different parts of the same executive branch,” said Larry Berger, a lawyer who represented many of the agents, who were union members of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.
Given the renewed focus on the Secret Service after recent reports of a series of security lapses, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, wrote to White House chief of staff Denis McDonough last week voicing concerns that “steps were taken by the Administration to cover-up or deflect” White House involvement in the scandal. Chaffetz wrote that it remains unclear how the White House concluded that one of its team members was not involved, and he has requested records of Ruemmler’s review.
Dach’s role in Cartagena was far different from that of Secret Service agents who were responsible for the president’s safety. He was a volunteer who helped coordinate drivers for the White House travel office. He was paid a per diem, not a salary, and was reimbursed for expenses.
Dach and his fellow volunteers underwent background checks, according to a former administration official. That person said that on trips, team members are familiar with the president’s general itinerary in advance of his arrival but not the most sensitive information about his movements.
Travel volunteers, who are often recommended for the position by White House staffers, are repeatedly reminded that they are “mini-ambassadors” for the U.S. government and that their conduct reflects on the president and first lady, the former official said.
Administration officials interviewed by The Washington Post earlier this year said there was no reason to investigate Dach beyond interviews with him and his fellow White House team members, because he was not a government employee and because prostitution is legal in parts of Colombia, including Cartagena.
One senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information, said Ruemmler believed it would be a “real scandal” if she had sent “a team of people to Colombia to investigate a volunteer over something that’s not a criminal act. . . . That would be insane.”
Ruemmler, now a private-practice lawyer who is under White House consideration to replace the departing attorney general, Eric Holder Jr., did not respond to requests for comment.
The prostitution scandal erupted on April 14, 2012, the day Obama arrived in the coastal city of Cartagena. News that Secret Service agents had brought prostitutes back to their hotel rooms instantly overshadowed a summit that White House officials had hoped would focus on building economic ties with Latin America.
Obama initially described the agents involved as “a couple of knuckleheads” and told reporters at the time that his attitude about the behavior of the Secret Service is “no different than what I expect out of my delegation that’s sitting here.”
“We’re representing the people of the United States,” he said, “and when we travel to another country I expect us to observe the highest standards, because we’re not just representing ourselves.”
The Secret Service first provided evidence pointing to Dach’s potential involvement in the scandal less than a week later, on April 20.
The information, which then-Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan gave to Ruemmler, was not detailed. It said Secret Service investigators had evidence indicating Dach registered a prostitute into his room at the Hilton Cartagena Hotel shortly after midnight on April 4. He also conveyed that Secret Service agents on the ground had information suggesting the same.
The senior administration official said the White House’s position at the time was that the information amounted to little more than “rumor.”
Also on April 20, a Friday, reporters asked Press Secretary Jay Carney whether White House staffers had been involved. He said his information was that the incident did not “involve anything but the agents and the military personnel.”
White House lawyers in Ruemmler’s office spent that weekend interviewing all of the travel-office advance-team members who had been in Cartagena, including Dach.
Dach denied any wrongdoing, according to the administration official. Fellow White House employees said he had gone to dinner with them on April 3 — the night they arrived in town to prepare for Obama’s visit — and accompanied them back to the Hilton in a staff van. None reported witnessing any misbehavior, the senior administration official said.
The lawyers determined that there was “no credible information” to implicate Dach or anyone else from the White House at that time, the official said.
The weekend inquiry conducted by White House officials was less extensive than those undertaken by Secret Service and Pentagon officials, according to several government officials familiar with the probes. Those agencies had devoted considerable resources to their investigations, conducting extensive interviews and sending teams to Colombia for more than two weeks to track down and interview prostitutes and hotel staff members.
The Secret Service also administered multiple lie-detector tests to each of the agents, asking whether they had brought prostitutes to their rooms and paid for services, according to several agents and federal records.
The following Monday, in response to questions from reporters, Carney said that “there have been no specific, credible allegations of misconduct by anyone on the White House advance team or the White House staff.”
Carney added that, “out of due diligence, the White House counsel’s office has conducted a review of the White House advance team and . . . came to the conclusion that there’s no indication that any member of the White House advance team engaged in any improper conduct or behavior.”
About three weeks later, on May 11, the Secret Service again contacted the White House, this time with more detailed evidence pointing to Dach’s involvement, according to the senior administration official.
Sullivan informed Ruemmler that agency investigators had obtained copies of the Hilton hotel records, which listed Dach’s room number and showed an additional overnight guest had been registered to his room on April 4. The information was now based on investigators’ interviews with the hotel’s director of business development, front-desk manager and security chief, who explained how guests must personally register their overnight visitors and how they determined that U.S. personnel had done so.
Through his attorney, Dach declined to discuss details of his stay.
Many hotels in Colombia, for security reasons, maintain detailed records of additional overnight visitors. At the Hilton, prostitutes are required to show identification to ensure they are not underage. That identification is photocopied by the hotel and stored with the records of the guest staying in the room.
The Washington Post reviewed copies of the hotel logs for Dach’s stay, which showed that a woman was registered to Dach’s room at 12:02 a.m. April 4 and included an attached photocopy of a woman’s ID card. Through his attorney Dach declined to discuss these details as well.
Hotel staff members in Cartagena told federal investigators that they had determined Dach was one of three guests at the Hilton who had additional overnight guests registered to their rooms, federal records reviewed by The Washington Post show. The other two were a military staffer stationed at the White House and another Secret Service agent.
The records reviewed by The Washington Post list three names — one of which is redacted and identified only as a White House travel-team member. Two government officials who have seen an unredacted version separately confirmed that Dach is the travel-team member listed.
The room number, 513, provided next to the redacted name matches the one listed for Dach on a bill and hotel registration records administration officials shared with The Post.
The new information did not change the White House’s position.
Most Secret Service agents implicated in the scandal were staying at a different place, the Hotel Caribe. The White House learned from the Secret Service of a case of mistaken identity at the Caribe, in which one Secret Service agent was erroneously accused of bringing a prostitute to his room.
White House lawyers learned about the mix-up and cited it as a reason to question the evidence provided by the Secret Service.
Dach “gave responses that were not in any way indicative that he did in fact have an overnight guest,” the senior administration official said. “We concluded he was being truthful.”
Questions about Dach’s involvement in the scandal did not end there. Concerned that the primary investigation into the incident by the Secret Service was not thorough enough, a subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in late May asked the DHS inspector general’s office to conduct its own investigation.
IG investigators reviewed information that pointed to Dach. An agent said he saw Dach with a woman he believed was a prostitute, and another had information after reviewing records that showed he had registered a woman into his room.
Nieland’s team also found that hotel officials had waived a fee normally charged to guests staying overnight. Hilton Worldwide officials in Virginia said their records showed Dach “was not charged for additional guest as a benefit of Hilton Honor Member.”
His team also collected research showing that the name of the woman in the Hilton records registered to Dach’s room matched that of a woman advertising herself on the Internet as a prostitute. The woman had posted photos of herself in undergarments in front of “Summit of the Americas” signs in Cartagena at the time of the trip, according to federal records and people familiar with the probe.
The Washington Post sent two reporters to Cartagena but were unable to locate the woman.
Nieland later told Senate staffers that his superiors demanded that he remove from an official report references to the evidence pointing to the White House team member.
Nieland said the instructions came less than 24 hours after his superiors said Edwards had briefed then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about the potential involvement of the White House team member, according to documents reviewed by The Washington Post.
A spokesman for Napolitano told The Washington Post that she never “ordered that anything be deleted in the inspector general’s report or asked for a delay,” but he declined to describe her conversations at the time with the inspector general.
Edwards was getting other complaints about the actions of his investigators, according to two people familiar with Edwards’ private testimony to the Senate committee. Two senior staffers to then-Sen. Joeseph Lieberman, I-Conn., who was chair of the committee, told Edwards he was not the inspector general of the White House and should avoid scrutinizing the White House in his report, according to the two people.
Nieland and two other members of the office fought or questioned alterations to the report. All three were later put on administrative leave for what they believed was their questioning of the changes.
Their superiors, including Edwards, said the discipline was unrelated to their complaints about the alterations.
The Office of Special Counsel, where one of the staff members resisting the changes filed a formal complaint against Edwards, issued a letter saying that there was convincing evidence that the action against him was retaliatory. Nieland was later suspended for an unrelated personnel matter, but he believed the move was retaliation for the questions he had raised the previous year. Senate investigators said they were unable to substantiate whether the third investigator was a victim of retaliation.
The strife within the inspector general’s office grew so severe that it was scrutinized by the Senate committee as part of a broader inquiry into Edwards’ conduct.
The Senate report noted conflicting accounts of Nieland’s role in the Secret Service investigation. Nieland’s superiors said Nieland told them he did not suspect a “cover-up” in their alterations. But Nieland later said to Senate investigators that he told his bosses that they were “sitting on information that could influence an election.”
Edwards, who later stepped down, disputed Nieland’s claims as part of the inquiry, telling Senate investigators the alterations were part of the ordinary editing process.
The Senate report said committee staffers could not determine whether politics or outside pressure were factors in the changes Edwards’ deputies ordered in the report. They noted that Edwards declined to provide the committee with any of his internal correspondence about the Secret Service investigation. The Senate report did conclude that Edwards had altered investigations at the behest of administration officials.
In a summary letter to Congress in September 2012, Edwards had made a passing reference to hotel logs that suggested a White House advance-team member may have had an overnight guest, but he said his investigators did not pursue the matter, because it was outside the agency’s jurisdiction.
The reference caught the attention of some reporters, who raised questions with White House officials, who continued to deny any wrongdoing by any White House team members. Since Edwards’ departure, his successor has made public a few more paragraphs in the report about information that pointed to a White House advance-team member.
Washington Post staffers Joshua Partlow in Cartagena and Ernesto Londono, Alice Crites and Tim Farnam in Washington contributed to this report.
© 2014, The Washington Post