When Mark Sullivan retired in February as the 22nd director of the Secret Service, he surely wanted to be remembered for three decades of faithfully protecting Presidents, candidates for national office, and other high-ranking officials. But most Americans will remember his tenure for something Sullivan probably wishes he could forget: the booze-fueled antics of 13 Secret Service agents who set out for a wild night in a seaside resort and ended up starring in an international sex scandal.
Its 3, special agents see themselves as the elite among law-enforcement officers: Those who protect the President have pledged that they would take a bullet for him.
Drug cartels in Colombia are also known to use prostitutes as spies. And with good reason. Some of the men in Cartagena had hired hookers on the road before. The wheels were set in motion early Wednesday morning, April 11, when a plane carrying a few dozen Secret Service agents touched down in Colombia. Another team would follow a few hours later.
The agents ranged in age and experience, from men in their twenties to a pair of supervisors in their forties. Some were married, others single or divorced.
The men aboard the two planes would eventually a contingent of nearly Secret Service personnel. Uniformed military servicemembers would be on the ground, too. And some members of the White House advance team had been in Cartagena for a week already. After a rest, they broke into groups and headed out for dinner. Several dozen Secret Service personnel went out on the town in different groups.
The State Department had given the Secret Service a list of reputable establishments where the men might spend their downtime. One group checked out the Hard Rock Cafe; it was dead, so they left.
The city is famous for its pulsing dance clubs, beautiful women, and legalized prostitution. Some of them even get the awkward business of payment out of the way up-front, a system known as prepago, and then let the men relax with the women over drinks before taking them back to their hotels. The agents asked locals, including taxi drivers and waiters, where to find good clubs.
Some were directed to a bar with an Egyptian theme and a deejay. Others ended up in a strip t that did a prepago business. Tu Candela markets itself as a hot spot for foreigners. Dania Suarez was well acquainted with the cheesy clubs frequented by Americans. When the year-old brunette spotted Huntington and his friends, she thought they looked like regular Americans.
As he swayed on the dance floor, he lifted his shirt and showed her his washboard abs. Suarez may have wondered why Huntington felt the need to show off, considering her line of work. As he made his way over to her and a friend with a group of fellow agents, she thought they seemed to know the score.
She can dress nicely, wear nice makeup, speak and act like a lady. She told some neighbors she was a dancer. She had no idea that the handsome American was a law-enforcement agent, much less that he was in Cartagena to protect President Obama.
But others in Cartagena that night reportedly bragged that they worked for Obama. Huntington had played the Secret Service card on trips as a way to attract women. One agent jumped on top of a bar. Huntington was a world away from Severna Park, Maryland, where he lived with his wife of almost 20 years, who homeschooled their two teenage sons and ran a neighborhood Bible-study group.
The Huntingtons owned a modest house with two white rocking chairs on the front porch and an American flag flying above the front door. Before ing the Secret Service, he was an airport security guard and then a cop in St. Petersburg, Florida. Agents say that the bonds among CAT members are extraordinarily tight, even within the famously fraternal Secret Service. As Huntington flirted with Suarez, Bongino took an eye to her friend. Eventually, they paired off and headed back to the Hotel Caribe, a couple of miles away.
They continued on to the hotel. Huntington was out partying with fellow Secret Service agents, she said. His group ed hers, and after drinking late into the night, everyone crashed at the home of one of the women. Scruggs remembered not seeing a wedding ring on his left hand.
The couple saw each other for a year, usually shacking up in a hotel. Scruggs, who was 29 when she met Huntington, said that he told her he was divorced and that he confided his marital troubles in long heart-to-hearts.
He talked about his children. He told Scruggs he loved her. He bought her a watch for Christmas and met her mother. But after the elections, Huntington was spending less time in Texas. His relationship with Scruggs faded, leaving her wounded and confused. Huntington, meanwhile, had already moved on. Huntington confessed he was still married.
The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, was immediately drawn to the agent. There were a whole group of them, not just him. He was the only one that stood out. The two met again in August when they were both in Manhattan. She spent two nights with Huntington. When Huntington and Suarez reached the Hotel Caribe, he registered with the front desk that he was bringing a guest back to his room, as was required by hotel policy. Suarez would later claim that, had she been so inclined, she could have rifled through his belongings and obtained information of presumably vital national security.
Suarez asked for her payment.
What happened next is a matter of dispute. Suarez—who later wrote a book about her night with the agent—claimed there was no misunderstanding and that she had clearly set her price before she went to the hotel.
Huntington has sold his home in Severna Park, and associates say he has moved with his family to an undisclosed location. Suarez demanded that Bongino come up with the money to pay her.
Suarez said that she threatened to call the police and that Bongino pleaded with her not to. During the commotion, a Colombian police officer, apparently stationed on the hotel floor, inquired about the argument and told Bongino he should pay Suarez. There are conflicting s about whether the police officer was advocating for Suarez or merely suggesting to Bongino that he give her the money to keep her quiet.
But once she had the money—about a third of what she claimed she was owed—Suarez left the hotel with her friend and got into a cab. They never reported the incident. Huntington was hardly the only agent who brought a woman back to his room that night. Nine men paid or solicited prostitutes, according to a Secret Service investigation.
Among the clients that night were two Secret Service supervisors who knowingly hired prostitutes. One agent said he asked his new friend to leave after she told him she expected money. Huntington and Suarez were the only couple whose disagreement escalated into a shouting match. After Suarez left, Huntington reportedly passed out in his bed and slept off a hangover.
The manager of the Hotel Caribe, according to firsthand s, was incensed by a list of complaints about his boorish American guests.
The impromptu pool party was staged by a group of military servicemembers, also staying at the hotel, who had trucked in their own alcohol, according to a source on the ground that night. A dozen servicemen also brought women to the hotel, some of them prostitutes, an investigation later found.
One of those men used the room of a Secret Service agent on the registry of overnight guests.
The agent was initially accused of solicitation but then cleared of any wrongdoing. As the hotel was taking stock of the damages, the head of security for the Caribe called the US Embassy to report that a Colombian police officer had intervened in an altercation between a Secret Service agent, Bongino, and a local prostitute, Suarez. US officials got in touch with the manager at the Caribe, who provided them with a list of complaints as well as all the names of overnight guests on the registry.
The agents in question were summoned to the Hilton to meet with the supervisor. Reid was a rising star in the Secret Service and a rarity in its ranks—an African-American woman. She had earned a reputation as a straight shooter, an advocate for hiring more female agents, and someone willing to take on the brass. A decade ago, Reid became a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit by African-American agents alleging discrimination.
She gave a declaration that listed ways black agents were slotted into less important asments. Reid eventually dropped out of the suit. On the contrary, she landed the plum job in Miami, a posting that rivals those in other major field offices in New York and Los Angeles. One agent who knows her describes Reid as a woman with no tolerance for mischief, who would never have failed to report what she discovered in Cartagena. Reid, who had been in the Miami job only a few months, had a decision to make.
President Obama was due in Cartagena in less than 24 hours. According to sources with direct knowledge of what happened that afternoon, Reid met 12 Secret Service employees at the Hilton Cartagena and read them the riot act.
She grilled the men about what had transpired the night. Reid had received the blessing of Mark Sullivan, the Secret Service director, to act swiftly.