Authors: Rebecca Fenton
(WASHINGTON) -- The Department of Homeland Security's independent watchdog agency has stepped up its oversight of the Secret Service's investigation into the Colombia prostitution scandal.
A DHS official emailed ABC News Monday on behalf of acting Inspector General Charles Edwards to say that late last week the agency "notified the USSS of our intent to conduct a comprehensive review of this matter." The email followed an ABC News report that revealed that the inspector general's office had taken a back seat in the probe—leaving the Secret Service's own internal affairs division in control of the investigation into the conduct of its agents during what has been described as an alcohol-fueled night of partying in Colombia.
Normally, allegations that Homeland Security employees engaged in serious misconduct are a matter for the Inspector General's office to look into. But the agency previously told ABC News that it would instead be monitoring the Secret Service review.
The approach appeared to be the result of a special carve-out for the Secret Service forged a decade ago—setting it apart from the standard described in a 2009 internal DHS memo, which specifically asserts that the Inspector General is "statutorily responsible for conducting and coordinating all investigations" of wrongdoing by other Homeland Security employees. Sen. Charles Grassley told ABC News he was not comfortable allowing the Secret Service's own agents to oversee the investigation, especially because it remains unclear whether the raucous behavior in Colombia was a one-time lapse or the sign of a broad systemic problem.
"An investigation by the agency's own Office of Professional Responsibility is necessary, but it doesn't provide transparent, independent oversight without an Inspector General's outside perspective," the Iowa Republican said Wednesday. "There's too much at stake to leave any doubts that an independent investigation wasn't conducted."
In an email to ABC News Monday, Edwards said the agency had enhanced its role in the review. In addition to monitoring the Secret Service effort, the Homeland Security investigators and inspectors would also begin their own independent look back at events.
"Last week, with the initial stages of the USSS [U.S. Secret Service] internal investigation nearing completion, we notified the USSS of our intent to conduct a comprehensive review of this matter," the email said. "As we notified the USSS last week, [the Office of Inspector General's] field work is beginning immediately."
The announcement of a comprehensive review comes after independent watchdog agency had been sending mixed signals about what its role would be in the probe. When Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testified on Capitol Hill last week, she told Grassley there is a standing agreement—"a memorandum of understanding"—between the Secret Service and the Inspector General that governs how internal investigations are conducted. "In these types of cases, where there is alleged misconduct, [the Inspector General] actually supervises the investigation but they use the investigatory resources of the Secret Service. That's how we are managing this one." That is not, however, how the Inspector General's office described the arrangement in response to questions from ABC News last Wednesday, in an exchange that occurred after Napolitano gave her answer to the Senate. Spokeswoman Rachael Norris told ABC News that the Inspector General is "closely monitoring" the Secret Service's investigation and will review it when it has been completed.
"We're monitoring their internal investigation at this time," Norris said. "We are not conducting an additional investigation at this time."
The Inspector General's subordinate apparently dated to 2003, when the Secret Service was moved from the Department of Treasury into the newly created Homeland Security department. Both the Secret Service and the Coast Guard, which was moved from the Transportation Department to DHS the same year, retained their internal investigative powers. On Monday, however, the agency said the only reason it did not launch its own, independent probe was because the Secret Service already had investigators on the ground in Colombia.
"In our oversight capacity, and in recognition that there were already USSS Office of Professional Responsibility investigators on the ground in Colombia, we determined that the USSS was best positioned to immediately initiate the investigation with the full understanding that they would keep OIG informed as the investigation progressed," Edwards said. "We have maintained close contact with the USSS, coordinating with them as their internal investigation continued."
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