By Dave Lieber The Dallas Morning News
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A Dallas woman has spent a whole lot of time and money to seek the truth. Malia Litman, a retired lawyer and wife of hotels.com founder David Litman, was determined to uncover corruption within the ranks of the secret service. What she found is pretty disturbing. The Dallas Morning News
"A lot of people think I'm nuts to pursue this."
The speaker is a self-described Dallas stay-at-home mom who spent $100,000 in legal fees to expose a culture of corruption in the U.S. Secret Service.
She filed 89 Freedom of Information Acts (89!) and discovered enough Secret Service scandals and cover-ups that even Bob Woodward would be impressed.
For this, she got very little public attention. Until now.
Meet Malia Litman. A retired lawyer and wife of noted Internet entrepreneur David Litman, founder of hotels.com and now CEO of getaroom.com.
She sits at her table in her North Dallas mansion during The Watchdog team visit.
Hors d'oeuvres were set out before we arrive -- something my colleague Marina Trahan Martinez and I are not used to -- cucumber slices, cookies, carrots, celery, hummus and pita bread. Her story is so riveting, we don't touch the food.
When the first Secret Service sex scandals broke a few years ago, she grew curious. A former senior partner at Thompson & Knight law firm in Dallas, she knew that federal law allows us to see government documents.
She began filing requests with the U.S. Department Homeland Security to learn of any incidents of agent misbehavior in the Secret Service, any investigations and disciplinary action.
I'll skip ahead to the end of her multi-year legal battle that ensued. She won. In the end, she received 3,914 pages, some of them so hot they almost burn the fingers.
My colleague Marina spent the week analyzing the documents and pulled out vignettes which are shared with this story. Here, though, are lowlights of behind-the-scenes mishaps of our vaunted Secret Service.
A culture of "wheels up; rings off" meant even married agents could party on foreign trips.
Secret Service K-9 units brought their dogs into their hotel room, which the dogs trashed. The agents made payoffs so the incident wouldn't be reported.
A agent who missed his flight later showed up drunk with two prostitutes. He was not disciplined. Agents "engaged" with prostitutes in Amsterdam's red-light district during an advance team trip.
A supervisor choked a female subordinate because she rejected his sexual advances.
A supervisor offered a subordinate a larger office in return for sex.
A supervisor took a subordinate to a sex show while on duty.
A male agent's gun was stolen by a male prostitute he solicited online. The gun was never recovered.
A manager in the National Threat Assessment Center forced employees to drink alcohol in his office "so that he could trust them." The same manager was accused of multiple incidents of sexual harassment.
Why this matters
One word here: blackmail.
Misbehaving agents are put at risk, and to protect their careers they could be blackmailed, putting those they protect in an unforeseen vulnerability.
I contacted the Secret Service. Agency spokeswoman Cathy L. Milhoan sent me a brief summary of Litman's now-dismissed lawsuit and the judge's rulings in the case. No comment on the activities themselves, though.
I get that there are extraordinary problems in our most sacred protective detail. This in itself is not news. What fascinates me here are the great and courageous lengths Malia Litman went through to bring this out.
She says: "The documents themselves show major corruption in the Secret Service. But to me, the bigger issue, the more offensive thing was the cover-up of the corruption."
Her husband says: "She doesn't let people push her around. In those dark moments when you wonder what you're going to do, she finds a way to push through. She never has self-doubts about the righteousness of her cause."
She explains, "I'm in a unique position that most people don't have. I have a law degree and the financial ability to not work and pay a lawyer. Most Americans don't have this."
She also has guts.
"This was not about a political party or ideology," she says. "It's more about what's wrong with our government. When I see this level of corruption and the waste of taxpayer money, somebody needs to say, 'You're not going to get away with this.' At least I want to make people aware of it."
Let's end on a sour note. The federal Freedom of Information Act is supposed to work by itself. But more and more, government officials force those who request information into costly lawsuits.
Although Litman's requests were delayed, stalled and in some cases, falsely denied, the federal judge in her case is forcing her to pay all legal bills.
With a sigh, her husband says: "What's the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act if the government can stall and delay and push it on people to get the legal risk? And the court doesn't enforce the act by making the government pay for its obstruction?"
Senior U.S. District Judge Sam R. Cummings ruled that Litman "has not shown she is entitled to an award because she has not shown that her pursuit of records involves a legitimate public benefit."
The judge cites as precedent another case that found "that generally increasing public knowledge about the government is not a legitimate public benefit."
That's about the dumbest idea I ever heard.
Here's a look at more details of some of the incidents, based on court records, obtained by Maria Litman.
Frisco incident Just before Halloween 2012, an underage male was interviewed in Frisco by Homeland Security investigators. That's the location of the Dallas field office for the Department of Homeland Security and Office of Inspector General.
The boy was asked whether a Secret Service agent had sexually molested him. The boy answered that he had spent the night on three occasions with the special agent -- but he slept alone on the couch.
A year earlier, the Denver office discovered that the same agent was caught by customs agents and border patrol officers trying to import into the country by mail the main ingredient for a "date rape" drug. The agent supposedly used the drug to seduce and molest underage boys. The boy in Frisco said he had seen the special agent mixing something into a drink.
Drinking on the job A source, unidentified in the documents, complained about a "sweep it under the rug" culture at the Secret Service. In June 2012, the source agreed to be interviewed.
A manager at the National Threat Assessment Center, or as he called it, the "Nice T & A Club," [edited] made employees drink on the job so he could trust them.
The same manager a few years before had been caught by the New York Police Department with a prostitute, was given a few days off work and then later promoted.
The source said at least three female employees resigned from the NTAC because of sexual harassment involving abusive language. The manager was later caught emailing pornography.
More drinking A special agent on an out-of-town trip said he feared for his life when he allowed a group of local women to drive him around looking for a better deal on a T-shirt, according to a November 2010 report.
He was officially disciplined for failure to report for duty and poor conduct after drinking with the women. He awoke on a couch after drinking an unknown drink with no idea how he got there or how long he had been asleep.
When he finally caught up with other agents, one commented that he smelled of alcohol.
Stolen gun A Secret Service agent used his work laptop to order online a same-sex prostitute in Puerto Rico, according to at least two anonymous complaints made in 2012 to the Office of Inspector General.