WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Tuesday named veteran Secret Service agent Julia Pierson as the agency’s first female director, signaling his desire to change the culture at the male-dominated service, which has been marred by scandal.
Pierson, who most recently served as the agency’s chief of staff, will take over from Mark Sullivan, who announced his retirement last month. The agency faced intense criticism during Sullivan’s tenure for a prostitution scandal during preparations for Obama’s trip to Cartagena, Colombia, last year.
The incident raised questions within the agency – as well as at the White House and on Capitol Hill – about the culture, particularly during foreign travel. In addition to protecting the president, the Secret Service also investigates financial crimes.
“Over her 30 years of experience with the Secret Service, Julia has consistently exemplified the spirit and dedication the men and women of the service demonstrate every day,” Obama said in a statement announcing Pierson’s appointment, which does not require Senate confirmation.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also praised Obama’s “historic decision” to name Pierson as the service’s first female director.
Pierson, 53, has held high-ranking posts throughout the Secret Service, including deputy assistant director of the office of protective operations and assistant director of human resources and training. She has served as chief of staff since 2008.
That same year, Pierson was awarded the Presidential Meritorious Executive Award for superior performance in management throughout her career.
She joined the Secret Service in 1983 as a special agent and previously worked as a police officer in Orlando, Fla.
“Julia is eminently qualified to lead the agency that not only safeguards Americans at major events and secures our financial system, but also protects our leaders and our first families, including my own,” Obama said. “Julia has had an exemplary career, and I know these experiences will guide her as she takes on this new challenge to lead the impressive men and women of this important agency.”
Thirteen Secret Service employees were caught up in last year’s prostitution scandal. After a night of heavy partying in the Caribbean resort city of Cartagena, the employees brought women, including prostitutes, to the hotel where they were staying. The incident became public after one agent refused to pay a prostitute and the pair argued about payment in a hotel hallway.
Eight of the employees were forced out of the agency, three were cleared of serious misconduct and at least two have been fighting to get their jobs back.
The incident took place before Obama arrived in Colombia and the service said the president’s safety was never compromised. But news of the scandal broke during his trip, overshadowing the summit and embarrassing the U.S. delegation.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said the Secret Service has “lost the trust of many Americans” following the Colombia scandal. Pierson, he said Tuesday, “has a lot of work ahead of her to create a culture that respects the important job the agency is tasked with.”
Sullivan issued a new code of conduct that bans employees from drinking within 10 hours of starting a shift or bringing foreign nationals back to their hotel rooms.
Sullivan apologized for the incident last year during testimony before a Senate panel.
Associated Press writer Alicia Caldwell contributed to this report.