By Susan Cornwell and Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the Secret Service, in his first public appearance since a scandal involving Colombian prostitutes and his employees, apologized for the misconduct on Wednesday but lawmakers expressed doubt that this was an isolated incident.
Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan, gray-haired in a blue striped suit and tie, faced the Senate Homeland Security Committee and asserted that the behavior of a dozen employees in Cartagena last month did not reflect the culture of the agency.
"I am deeply disappointed and I apologize for the misconduct of these employees and the distraction that it has caused," Sullivan said.
"Over the past several weeks, we have been under intense scrutiny as a result of this incident. To see the agency's integrity called into question has not been easy," he said.
In the biggest scandal to hit the agency that protects the president, a dozen Secret Service employees were accused of misconduct for bringing women, some of them prostitutes, back to their hotel rooms in Colombia, ahead of a presidential trip.
Senator Susan Collins, the senior Republican on the committee, said "the behavior is morally repugnant." She and other senators said they found it difficult to believe the misconduct was an isolated incident.
Collins said there was no excuse for such "recklessness" and that the Secret Service employees had "willingly made themselves potential targets" and could easily have been drugged, kidnapped or blackmailed.
Sullivan told the senators that it was "just absurd" to believe that this type of behavior was condoned by the agency in any way.
Sullivan listened to senator after senator express concern about the actions of his employees in Colombia, including Senator Joseph Lieberman, the chairman of the committee, who called it a "sordid story."
"That reputation, a great reputation, was badly stained last month when 11 Secret Service employees engaged in a night of heavy drinking in Cartagena, Colombia, which ended with them taking foreign nationals, women, back to their hotel rooms," said Lieberman, an independent.
Lieberman, one of several lawmakers who has been briefed on the incident, described the evening in mid-April when the men, in separate groups of two to four, went to different nightclubs and strip clubs, drinking heavily.
They returned to their hotel with women, some of whom were prostitutes, and registered them as overnight guests as required by hotel rules.
During the course of the investigation, the Secret Service learned that another employee had engaged in similar conduct earlier in the week in Cartagena.
"If one of the agents had not argued with one of the women about how much he owed her, the world would never have known this sordid story," Lieberman said.
(Writing by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Will Dunham)