Washington: Several small groups of Secret Service employees separately visited clubs, bars and brothels in Colombia prior to a visit by President Barack Obama last month and engaged in reckless, "morally repugnant" behaviour, a US senator says as the first congressional hearing on the scandal begins on Wednesday.
Senator Susan Collins says the prostitution scandal could have provided a foreign intelligence service, drug cartels or other criminals with opportunities for blackmail or coercion that could have threatened the president`s safety.
In remarks prepared for today`s hearing, Collins also challenged early assurances that the scandal in Colombia appeared to be an isolated incident. The senator noted that two participants were Secret Service supervisors one with 21 years of service and the other with 22 years and both were married.
"This was not a one-time event," said Collins, the senior Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "The circumstances unfortunately suggest an issue of culture."
The Secret Service is tasked with protecting the president and those close to the presidency.
Senator Joe Lieberman, the committee`s chairman, said, "I want to hear what the Secret Service is doing to encourage people to report egregious behaviour when they see it."
Today`s hearing was expected to expose sensational new details in the scandal, which became public after a dispute over payment between a Secret Service agent and a prostitute at a Cartagena hotel on April 12.
The Secret Service was in the coastal resort before Obama`s arrival for a Latin American summit. Collins said several small groups of agency employees from two hotels went out separately to clubs, bars and brothels and they "all ended up in similar circumstances."
"Contrary to the conventional story line, this was not simply a single, organized group that went out for a night on the town together," Collins said.
A dozen Secret Service officers and supervisors and 12 other US military personnel were implicated. Eight Secret Service employees, including the two supervisors, have lost their jobs. The Secret Service is moving to permanently revoke the security clearance for one other employee, and three others have been cleared of serious wrongdoing.