A call from Washington DC’s Hay-Adams Hotel in May reporting that a Secret Service agent was trying to force his way into a woman's room set in motion an internal investigation that has sent tremors through an agency still trying to restore its elite reputation.
The incident came a year after the agency was roiled by a prostitution scandal in Cartagena, Colombia, prompting vows from senior officials to curb a male-dominated culture of hard partying and other excesses.
The service named its first female director, Julia Pierson, seven months ago, and a broad inspector-general report on the agency’s culture launched in the wake of Cartagena is expected to be released in coming weeks.
The disruption at the Hay-Adams involved Ignacio Zamora Jr, a senior supervisor who oversaw about two dozen agents in the Secret Service’s most elite assignment – the President’s security detail. Mr Zamora was allegedly discovered attempting to re-enter a woman’s room after accidentally leaving a bullet from his service weapon.
In a follow-up investigation, agency officials also found that Mr Zamora and another supervisor, Timothy Barraclough, had sent sexually suggestive emails to a female subordinate, according to those with knowledge of the case. Officials have removed Mr Zamora from his position and have moved Mr Barraclough to a separate part of the division.
Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan declined to comment on the internal review of the Hay-Adams incident or the supervisors’ alleged behaviour.
The Hay-Adams, which overlooks the White House and served as the Obama family’s temporary home before the President’s first inauguration, is accustomed to seeing Secret Service agents on and off duty. One night in May, hotel staff alerted the White House about odd behaviour by an agent demanding access to one of their guest’s rooms.
According the Secret Service’s internal findings, Mr Zamora was off-duty when he met a woman at the hotel’s Off the Record bar and later joined her in her room.
The review found that Mr Zamora had removed ammunition from the chamber of his government-issued handgun during his stay in the room and then left behind a single bullet. He returned to the room when he realised his mistake. The guest refused to let him back in. Mr Zamora identified himself to hotel security as a Secret Service agent.
The incident triggered an investigation that included a search of Mr Zamora’s government-issued BlackBerry, which contained sexually charged messages to the female agent, according to the people briefed on the findings.
The review of the communications revealed that Mr Barraclough had also sent inappropriate and suggestive messages to the female agent.
All Secret Service employees must maintain top-secret security clearances to be employed. A report earlier this year that dealt with events in Cartagena said employees’ sexual behaviour should be considered in granting security clearances “when the behaviour may subject the individual to coercion, exploitation, or duress, or reflects lack of judgment or discretion.”
Mr Zamora, a veteran agent who had risen to the top rungs of Mr Obama’s protective detail, previously headed up first lady Laura Bush’s protective detail. Mr Barraclough joined the presidential detail four years ago.
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