As the salacious details of the Secret Service sex scandal have cast an intensely private agency into the spotlight, the man at its helm has managed the crisis largely out of public view, a low-profile response that associates say belies his disgust with the conduct of his subordinates.
Colleagues describe Mark Sullivan, 58, director of the service since 2006, as a soft-spoken and even-tempered leader from an Irish Catholic family who has joked that he chose a law enforcement career over an earlier goal of entering the priesthood. Though he has not yet offered a public defense, those who have spoken with Sullivan say he is deeply disturbed by the reports of heavy drinking, visits to strip clubs and payments to prostitutes just two nights before President Obama arrived in Cartagena, Colombia, two weeks ago.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says the Secret Service prostitution scandal posed no risk to President Obama. Napolitano testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
The status of the 24 Secret Service and military personnel accused of misconduct in the prostitution scandal in Colombia.
It is the second major embarrassment for the agency on Sullivan’s watch, coming more than two years after a pair of uninvited guests talked their way past Secret Service officers at the White House to enter a state dinner and mingle with Obama and Vice President Biden. But if that error represented a procedural failure, the Cartagena scandal has exposed an apparent laxness of culture and accountability within the agency that could prove much more difficult for Sullivan to fix — if he is given the chance.
Ralph Basham, who ran the Secret Service from 2003 to 2006 and recommended to President George W. Bush that Sullivan succeed him, said current and former agents are “ashamed of what these people did.”
“The whole college spring break mentality these folks were engaged in — that’s not the Secret Service that I know,” said Basham, who remains supportive of Sullivan.
The director has moved swiftly to mete out punishment, severing ties with nine of the employees implicated in the scandal while clearing three others of serious misconduct. In doing so, Sullivan appears to have maintained support from the White House and Capitol Hill.
Several lawmakers praised him for launching the internal investigation and compared him favorably with Martha N. Johnson, who abruptly quit three weeks ago as head of the General Services Administration after a watchdog’s report unearthed lavish spending at a Las Vegas conference.
At a Senate committee hearing Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared that Sullivan “has the president’s and my full confidence as this investigation proceeds.”
Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said the director “is not a screamer, but he was as angry as I ever heard him at the agents who put the agency and the president in this position.”
A decorated career
The two public humiliations in the past three years have stained an otherwise decorated three-decade rise for Sullivan, who grew up in the Boston suburbs as the eldest of six children. Tall and lean, Sullivan is an avid runner who played hockey at St. Anselm College and remains a passionate Boston sports fan, friends said. He and his wife, Laurie, have three children.