Paula Reid, the new Secret Service boss for the South American region, was in Cartagena preparing for the president’s visit when she received an urgent report: A prostitute, upset because she had not been paid by a Secret Service agent, had created a disturbance in a nearby hotel, knocking on doors and yelling in the hallways at daybreak.
With roughly 24 hours left until President Obama was due to arrive in the Colombian town, the 46-year-old Calvert County native instructed her staff to swoop into the Hotel Caribe at midday April 12 and inspect hotel registration records for all Secret Service employees. Reid, who had been staying at a nearby hotel, swiftly rounded up 11 agents and officers and ordered them out of the country. She alerted her superiors that she found early evidence of “egregious” misconduct involving prostitutes and set in motion the public uncovering of the most wide-reaching scandal at the agency in decades, according to government officials involved in the case.
House Speaker John Boehner is urging government investigators to get to the bottom of what happened in Colombia between Secret Service agents, military personnel and prostitutes.
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It fell to Reid, recently promoted to head the prestigious Miami office, to ride herd on a rowdy group of male colleagues, including two who were assigned to supervise the group, the morning after a drunken bender, according to the officials. While details about the scandal and the men who took the prostitutes to their rooms are now well documented, less is known about the role played by one of the agency’s highest-ranking African Americans in the decision, with the clock ticking, to replace them on an assignment for which there is no room for error.
For Reid, the moment was not without risk, opening her to a potential internal backlash for ruining the men’s careers and, once the news became known, embarrassing an agency that prides itself on maintaining a stoic public face. Officials familiar with the probe said Reid had Director Mark Sullivan’s endorsement as she took swift steps to handle the matter, and that he gave the final decision to remove the agents. But some service members said another senior manager might have been less aggressive.
Those who know Reid said the move revealed a steely resolve that has marked her 21-year rise through the ranks of an agency whose macho reputation has again come under scrutiny. Her story offers a counterbalance to critics who contend the Secret Service has been slow to clean up its act from the “Mad Men”-era days when some agents joked that their off-duty mantra was “wheels up, rings off.”
Not that Reid, an intensely private person, would admit it. In an interview, she offered few new details of her role, sticking to what colleagues described as her businesslike approach.
“I am confident that as an agency we’ll determine exactly what happened and take appropriate action,” she said in the interview with her and an agency spokesman. “Despite this current challenge facing the Secret Service, my job is to keep Miami personnel focused on our core protective and investigative missions. Anything less is counterproductive to the many critical functions we perform each day.”