WASHINGTON – The director of the Secret Service, Mark Sullivan, could have retired from government nearly 10 years ago and avoided the scandals of the White House gate crashers and, more recently, the one involving a dozen agents, officers and supervisors implicated in a prostitution case.
Instead, Sullivan chose to remain in the Secret Service, where he has spent half his life. The question is: Will Sullivan will be allowed to keep his job as the scandal unfolds in coming weeks?
Sullivan, 58, appears to have weathered the storm's early stages, although details are still shaking out and congressional hearings haven't started. He's credited with taking quick disciplinary action and being open about facts in the sordid affair with members of Congress, with whom he has shrewdly cultivated important relationships over the years.
When Sullivan learned April 12 about reports of prostitutes with Secret Service agents, officers and supervisors in Cartagena, he quickly expressed concern about the president's security, according to a senior Secret Service official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. Assured there was no threat, Sullivan instructed all the implicated employees to be removed from Colombia.
Later, Sullivan personally called the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at home to talk about the investigation. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., spoke fondly of Sullivan during a subsequent oversight hearing, noting that he has known the director since Sullivan was just a Secret Service agent.
"I think he's doing all he can to ensure a timely and thorough investigation, accountability for behavior that failed to meet the standards he expects, and certainly the standards that the president of the United States and the American people deserve," Leahy said.
There have been only a few signs so far of eroding support. The White House has said the president — who joked in a speech during the weekend about a new curfew for Secret Service agents — remained supportive of Sullivan.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said last week that Sullivan's job could be secure if the scandal were an isolated incident. "But if it goes much deeper, you know, nothing happens or nothing's changed in Washington if heads don't roll," Grassley said.
Another lawmaker, Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-Minn., on the House Homeland Security Committee, warned against a "knee-jerk reaction" and urged a full investigation. But he compared Sullivan as the agency's director to the captain of a foundering ship: "I'm a Navy guy," he said. "The captain of the ship can be in his cabin sleeping and if the ship runs aground the captain of the ship is responsible. I'm not saying anybody's head should roll here, but I expect the captain of the ship to do the right thing."
But in Washington, where there is deep respect for the office of the presidency — even among critics of President Barack Obama — there has been a general reluctance to harshly criticize the agency that quietly keeps the president and his family safe from harm. In another response to the prostitution scandal, Sullivan late Friday announced new conduct rules for its agents to prohibit them from drinking excessively, visiting disreputable establishments while traveling or bringing foreigners to their hotel rooms. Sullivan urged agents and other employees to "consider your conduct through the lens of the past several weeks."
The Secret Service already has forced eight employees from their jobs and was seeking to revoke the security clearance of another employee, which would effectively force him to resign. Three others have been cleared of serious wrongdoing. The military was conducting its own, separate investigation but canceled the security clearances of all 12 enlisted personnel.
"I always found Mark to be a dedicated public servant — very decisive, great integrity, cool under pressure," said former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff who was Sullivan's boss between 2006 and 2009.
Sullivan knew at a young age that he wanted to be in law enforcement, motivated in part by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, he told the Boston Globe in 2006.
"As a young kid in third, fourth grade, watching and seeing the impact it had on the country — I can't say at that moment I decided I wanted to be a Secret Service agent to make sure it never happens again, but it definitely had an impact on me," Sullivan said.
Sullivan is from a large, Irish Catholic family. He joined the service in 1983 after three years as a special agent in the inspector general's office at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He was appointed director in 2006. His career took him to Detroit; Columbus, Ohio and ultimately Washington, where he served on George H.W. Bush's presidential detail. He has been married to his wife, Laurie, for more than 20 years, and they have three older daughters. He loves hockey and played in an adult league until a few years ago.
"If you were casting someone for the role of director of the Secret Service, he looks the part," said James Huse, Sullivan's former boss in the service's Detroit division. "He's a tall, handsome Irishman, with grey hair and the demeanor of a born leader." Huse said Sullivan was known for making complex criminal cases and was one of the best investigators at the agency.
Posted in the 1980s in Detroit, Sullivan worked late nights on surveillance missions, said Michael McManamon, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent who worked with Sullivan. At one point, there was a string of rapes in Detroit where young girls were being kidnapped off the streets in the morning on their way to school, McManamon recalled. Even though they were not working on the rapes case, Sullivan and McManamon would stay in the area after their shifts and see that children got on and off the buses safely.
"We did our best to put some more eyes and ears out on the street," McManamon said. "I was very proud to be sitting next to him in a car in a dodgy environment."
When the Secret Service protects the United Nations General Assembly each year in New York, Sullivan strolls late at night to talk with Secret Service employees on duty, said Nicholas Trotta, former assistant director of the Secret Service's protective division.
"He would say to me, 'Nick, what are you doing tonight at 10 o'clock,'" Trotta said. Trotta said he always knew why the director was asking that question. "I guess we're going to be walking around in stairwells," Trotta said he would answer.
Sullivan also goes to the White House and vice president's residence on Christmas to thank the officers for working the holiday, Trotta said.
The Secret Service was not founded to protect the president — that charter came more than 30 years later — but the agency is best known for that mission.
The prostitute scandal is not the first time Sullivan has found himself in the hot seat.
In 2009, Sullivan faced an outraged public and Congress after two aspiring socialites talked their way into a state dinner at the White House without being on the guest list. This was not only against protocol, but it raised security concerns about how easily an unauthorized person could gain close access to the president and vice president.
"In this case, I fully acknowledge the proper procedures were not followed and human error occurred in the execution of our duties," Sullivan told lawmakers after the incident.
Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., was the first lawmaker to publicly urge the White House to fire Sullivan.
"It's time we step up and say, 'This is not acceptable,'" Forbes said.
Associated Press researcher Judy Ausuebel and writers Laurie Kellman, Larry Margasak and Julie Pace contributed to this story.