WASHINGTON (AP) — The chairman of the House Oversight Committee called Tuesday for the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration to step down amid allegations that DEA agents attended sex parties with prostitutes while stationed overseas.
Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah said DEA chief Michele Leonhart has allowed problems at the agency to fester for more than a decade.
"It's time for her to go," Chaffetz told The Associated Press. "I don't have confidence in her, nor does the majority of the committee."
If Leonhart does not step down, President Barack Obama should fire her, Chaffetz said.
Chaffetz made the comments after a 3½-hour hearing Tuesday that focused on the sex party allegations, which date back to 2001. Leonhart has led the DEA since 2007 and was sole deputy administrator for three years before that.
An internal report said government money was used to pay prostitutes at a farewell party for a high-ranking DEA official in Colombia.
DEA agents also rented undercover apartments in Colombia and used them for parties with prostitutes, the DEA said in an internal report.
Excerpts of the report were released Tuesday by the oversight panel, which is investigating questionable behavior highlighted in a March report by the Justice Department's inspector general that examined sexual harassment and misconduct allegations from 2009 to 2012.
The Justice Department report recounts allegations that DEA agents attended sex parties with prostitutes, funded by local drug cartels, in a foreign county. The report does not identify the country where the alleged sex parties occurred, but the DEA report released Tuesday identified it as Colombia.
The report came after a separate 2012 prostitution scandal in Colombia involving the Secret Service drew attention to questionable behavior by law enforcement officers while stationed overseas. Those allegations prompted Congress to order a review of other agencies' practices. DEA agents who were accused of misconduct in the wake of that scandal were recalled from Colombia and put on limited duty.
Ten DEA agents were accused of wrongdoing; seven were issued suspensions ranging from one to 10 days.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the oversight panel, said the new report "details a truly breathtaking recklessness by DEA agents." Cummings said he cannot understand how such "egregious misconduct could have continued for so long" without being addressed.
Cummings and other committee members sharply questioned Leonhart at Tuesday's hearing, asking why agents were not fired, nor their names released.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., called it "stunning" that no one had been fired in the wake of the allegations.
"What would it take to get fired at the DEA?" he asked.
Leonhart, who was confirmed as DEA chief in 2010 after three years in an acting role, responded that civil service protections make it difficult to fire DEA agents. As administrator, she is powerless to step in during disciplinary proceedings and in some cases cannot even revoke an agent's security clearance, Leonhart said.
"What the hell do you get to do?" Gowdy asked incredulously.
Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., said he was appalled at the actions identified in the Justice Department and DEA reports. "From what we've heard, this reflects a 'spring break frat party' mentality for the last 15 years at the DEA," he said.
Lawmakers from both parties said they were dumbfounded that Attorney General Eric Holder found it necessary to send a memo last week reminding department employees not to engage with prostitutes.
"Hello? Am I missing something?" Cummings said. "I think we are at an all-time low here."
Walker said he also was surprised at the memo — calling it "ludicrous" — but said the message from Holder did not specify how officials will be punished if they violate the directive.
From previous actions, it appears the Justice Department's response to employees who solicit prostitutes is "Hey, maybe take a few days off," Walker said.
Leonhart called the allegations appalling but again said she had little recourse to impose harsher discipline.
Chaffetz told Leonhart she deserves much of the blame for what he called a cultural problem at DEA that stretches back more than a decade.
"You get called before this committee and say 'Oh, it's terrible, it's awful,'" Chaffetz said at the conclusion of the hearing. "But you personally have been responsible for this for more than a decade and you didn't do anything about it."
Follow Matthew Daly: http://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC