WASHINGTON – A new government investigation questions a bizarre Secret Service mission that pulled agents from their assignment near the White House and sent them to the rural Maryland home of a headquarters employee embroiled in a personal dispute with a neighbor.
The report by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general calls the conduct "problematic," and says that the employee's friendship with high-level Secret Service officials creates the appearance it was motivated by personal relations "rather than furthering official government functions."
Although agency officials insisted that President Obama's safety was not compromised, the memo notes that Obama was at the White House on at least two days that the agents were "a 50-minute drive (without traffic) from the White House" checking on the headquarters employee. The agents assigned to the task were from the agency's so-called "Prowler" unit, a rotating team of two special agents who are supposed to respond to suspicious people and situations in and around the White House and national capital area.
The inspector general, John Roth, said his office could find no legal authorization for using Secret Service agents "to protect an employee involved in an unrelated private dispute." The incident happened three years ago but came to light this past May in a report in The Washington Post.
A Secret Service spokesman, Ed Donovan, said in a statement, "The Secret Service has received the OIG memorandum and is reviewing it for findings." He did not address the findings, and the memo from Roth to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson did not include final recommendations or a response from the Secret Service.
The report was obtained by The Associated Press ahead of its public release Wednesday. It comes as Congress is investigating the Secret Service over a series of security breaches and scandals, including a recent incident where a man with a knife scaled the White House fence and dashed all the way into the East Room.
Compared to that failure and other incidents, including a prostitution scandal in Colombia, "Operation Moonlight" stands as a strange side note.
A Secret Service employee who worked as the assistant to then-director, Mark Sullivan, was involved in a dispute with her neighbor, who was harassing her and assaulted her father. This "resulted in the loss of several of her father's teeth," the report says.
Local police arrested the neighbor, and the employee, identified by the Post as Lisa Chopey, sought out a protective order. But it didn't stop there. She told investigators that Keith Prewitt, then the deputy director of the Secret Service, was a family friend. And when he heard her story, Prewitt told A.T. Smith, then the assistant director for investigations, that the Secret Service should do something to help her out.
Smith directed one of his managers to have agents drive out to Chopey's home in La Plata, Md., to check on her. The report says that Sullivan, the agency director who's since retired, was made aware of that decision.
Prowler teams are not part of the presidential protective division, and agency personnel interviewed for the report insisted that their protective function was not compromised. The mission was over before long -- five days of visits are documented, with the longest lasting eight hours.
But the report notes that during those times, "the Prowler team would have been unable to respond to exigencies at the White House." And on at least two of those occasions, Obama was in the residence.
Several of the people named in the report, including Chopey, have retired or moved on from the Secret Service, but Smith is now the agency deputy director. Donovan, the agency spokesman, said Smith would not be made available for an interview. Prewitt and Sullivan, both now working in the private sector, did not respond to phone messages late Tuesday.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who is leading investigations of the Secret Service as chairman of an oversight subcommittee, said that Smith should be fired and that agency officials' contention that the president's safety was not jeopardized by the mission were "hogwash."
"It shows how problematic the Secret Service is, top to bottom," Chaffetz said. "This is inexcusable."