Scores of U.S. Secret Service employees improperly accessed the decade-old, unsuccessful job application of a congressman who was investigating scandals inside the agency, a new government report said Wednesday.
An assistant director suggested leaking embarrassing information to retaliate against Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House oversight committee.
"Some information that he might find embarrassing needs to get out," Assistant Director Edward Lowery wrote the March 31 email to a fellow director. "Just to be fair."
Two days later the Daily Beast website reported that Chaffetz had applied to be a Secret Service agent in 2003, but had been rejected.
The action was intended to embarrass and intimidate him, Chaffetz told The Washington Post.
The leak was intimidating, Chaffetz said, but won't stop him from continuing his probe of the agency.
Agents began looking at Chaffetz's file not long after the March 24 hearing began and quickly circulated it as anger spread throughout the agency, the Post reported. About 45 agents in total saw Chaffetz's file.
Though agents are required to report such breaches, only one did, and Secret Service Director Joe Clancy wasn't made aware of it until April 1, he said.
Clancy already was unhappy that he hadn't been briefed on the agents who had returned to duty at the White House drunk.
According to the Post a parody poster circulated showing Chaffetz leading a hearing that was headlined, "Got BQA from the Service in 2003." BQA is a term used when a "better qualified applicant" was available.
The actions by the employees could represent criminal violations under the U.S. Privacy Act, said the report by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general, John Roth. "It doesn't take a lawyer explaining the nuances of the Privacy Act to know that the conduct that occurred here — by dozens of agents in every part of the agency — was wrong," the report said.
Roth was unable to determine exactly who leaked the information to the Daily Beast, "Because of the significant number of individuals who had knowledge of Chairman Chaffetz’s application history," the report read.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson personally apologized to Chaffetz again Wednesday, the congressman told The Associated Press in an interview on Capitol Hill. Johnson did not disclose whether any employees had been punished.
Johnson said in a statement Wednesday that "those responsible should be held accountable" but did not provide further details.
"I am confident that U.S. Secret Service Director Joe Clancy will take appropriate action to hold accountable those who violated any laws or the policies of this department," Johnson said. "Activities like those described in the report must not, and will not, be tolerated."
Clancy also apologized Wednesday for "this wholly avoidable and embarrassing misconduct" and pledged to hold those responsible for the data breach accountable.
"I will continue to review policies and practices to address employee misconduct and demand the highest level of integrity of all our employees," Clancy said in a statement.
Chaffetz applied to join the Secret Service through a field office and was rejected and labeled "Better Qualified Candidate" for unknown reasons. Chaffetz said he never interviewed with the agency and does not know why his application was declined.
Lowery, who is in charge of training, told the inspector general he did not direct anyone to release information about Chaffetz and "believed it would have been inappropriate to do so," the report said. He told Roth the email was "reflecting his stress and his anger."
Lowery declined to comment though a Secret Service spokesman.
Chaffetz told the AP that Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., would conduct any congressional oversight hearings into the matter.
Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said anyone at the agency "unwilling or unable to meet the highest of ethical standards should not be a part of the Secret Service."
The inspector general said that under U.S. law and Secret Service rules, employees were required to report such behavior to supervisors. The investigation found that 18 supervisors or members of the agency's senior executive service knew or should have known that employees had improperly accessed Chaffetz's job application, but only one person attempted to inform Clancy.
During the March hearing, Clancy testified for the third time about an incident weeks earlier in which two senior agents were accused of drinking for several hours at a bar before driving a government vehicle into the White House complex, as on-duty personnel were investigating a suspicious item dropped on a roadway near the White House. It was the latest in a string of embarrassments, missteps and security breaches for the agency charged with protecting the president and his family.
Clancy took the helm of the agency on a temporary basis late last year after then-Director Julia Pierson was ousted after the disclosure of two security breaches, including an incident in which a man armed with a knife was able to scale a White House fence and run deep into the executive mansion.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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