MIAMI — A burgeoning new scandal over drunkenness or tawdry behavior among Secret Service officers traveling with President Barack Obama is partly rooted in a traffic accident in the Florida Keys earlier this month involving two of the agency’s men.
The Secret Service agents, both counter-sniper officers, wrecked their rental car after pulling it out of a grocery store parking lot in Islamorada into the path of a fully loaded Publix grocery truck around 2 a.m. on March 7, according to a Florida Highway Patrol crash report of the incident.
A highway patrol officer suspected booze was involved because the trooper detected “a slight odor of alcohol” on the agent driving the car, according to the report. But after “no detection of impairment was observed” during a sobriety test, the trooper decided not to give him a breathalyzer or blood test, just a ticket for failure to yield the right of way. The accident report does not say whether the Secret Service agents identified themselves as such to the trooper.
The wreck occurred about 12 hours before Obama arrived in South Florida for a speech at Miami’s Coral Reef Senior High School and a visit to the Ocean Reef Yacht Club in Key Largo, about 35 miles north of the site of the accident.
News of the accident — and the tension it triggered inside the Secret Service, still unsettled after a series of 2012 incidents with prostitutes and booze in Cartagena, Colombia, triggered the removal of 10 agents — didn’t leak out at the time.
But it emerged Thursday in a Washington Post story in the wake of disclosures that three Secret Service agents were yanked home from a presidential trip to the Netherlands last weekend after one of them was found passed out in a hotel hallway after a night of hard drinking.
The new reports of Secret Service misadventures have triggered growing concern among congressional overseers of the agency, particularly because they come after a “no tolerance” policy on partying was declared by Secret Service Director Julia Pierson.
“The most recent incident with the Secret Service shows that the agency has to deal with some in its ranks who fail to respect the important job the agency is tasked with,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I appreciate the swift action by Director Pierson, but it looks like she’s still got work to do to regain the trust of the American people.”
Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said he was “troubled by the recent news reports regarding the behavior of a few Secret Service agents” and has “requested more information.”
Secret Service spokesman Brian Leary declined comment on details of the incident in Amsterdam, except to say that “three employees were sent home for disciplinary reasons.” Of the Islamorada crash, he said that two “U.S. Secret Service personnel” were involved.
“They were not on duty at the time,” he said. “Out of an abundance of caution, they were returned home to (Washington) D.C. because of contact with police, pending police and traffic investigations.”
The highway patrol report identifies the two agents as Matthew Kyle Reyes, 27, of Woodbridge, Va., who was driving, and Kevin Sedlak, 51, of Elkridge, Md. The Publix driver was Nicolas Quintana Llarena of Miami. None could be reached for comment.
The accident occurred as the Secret Service agents’ vehicle, a Dodge Caravan rented from the Avis Budget Group, attempted to pull across U.S. 1 from the Trading Post, a trendy boutique grocery, to the chic Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada around 2 a.m. The agents did not have their lights on.
The truck was traveling about 35 miles an hour, setting off the airbags in the agents’ vehicle, according to the report, and damaged the car so badly it had to be towed away the next morning. The Florida Highway Patrol estimated damage of at least $10,000.
Elizabeth Jacocks, owner of the grocery store, said the agents told her employees that they were buying supplies for a fishing trip.
A federal law enforcement official who declined to speak for the record said that a Secret Service investigation concluded that the agents did not violate an agency rule barring alcohol consumption in the 10 hours before a work shift.
Controversy over drinking among Secret Service agents is hardly new. One of the little-remembered findings of the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, was that nine agents on the president’s security detail had been up late partying. (Among them: Clint Hill, the agent who famously leaped atop Kennedy’s limo to push his wife Jacqueline back into the car after she crawled out onto the trunk following the assassin’s shots.)
But over the past two years there has been a steady drumbeat of complaints about rowdy Secret Service misbehavior:
- In April 2012, a prostitute’s noisy demands that an agent had failed to pay an agreed-upon $800 fee for her services during an Obama visit to Colombia touched off the investigation that resulted in 10 men leaving the Secret Service.
- Six months later, Miami cops charged a Secret Service agent accompanying a presidential visit with disorderly intoxication and resisting arrest after they found him collapsed at a busy intersection.
- Last November, two agents were booted from Obama’s detail after one of them was caught trying to sneak into a woman’s hotel room where he had left a bullet from his gun — a discovery that also led to the finding of unsavory sexual emails to a female subordinate.
Pierson, appointed chief of the Secret Service about a year ago, has taken a tough stance toward misconduct, especially among the agency’s 3,300 field agents. Supposedly it’s working — a 144-page report by the Department of Homeland Security, which examined whether the presidential protection agency has systemic or cultural problems, said its inspector general “did not find evidence that misconduct is widespread” in the Secret Service.
“Furthermore, we did not find any evidence that (Secret Service) leadership has fostered an environment that tolerates inappropriate behavior,” the report said.
However, nearly a thousand of the 2,575 Secret Service employees who were surveyed for the report said they did not believe a statement that the agency’s management does not tolerate misconduct.