WASHINGTON — President Obama named Julia Pierson, a longtime U.S. Secret Service agent, on Tuesday as the first female director of the agency, a pick that could mark a cultural shift for an agency whose reputation was tarnished by last year’s prostitution scandal.
The selection of Pierson, 53, who has been the service’s chief of staff for more than four years, was lauded by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as “historic.” Obama called Pierson an agent who has “consistently exemplified the spirit and dedication the men and women of the service demonstrate every day.”
“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 in a statement. “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.”
Pierson’s appointment comes nearly a year after the agency — charged with protecting the president and top administration officials and visiting dignitaries — was rocked by a prostitution scandal. Several agents, who traveled to Cartagena, Colombia, to do advance work for Obama’s visit last April, brought prostitutes back to their hotel rooms. Twelve agents were either disciplined or forced out of the agency as a result of the scandal.
“During the Colombia prostitution scandal, the Secret Service lost the trust of many Americans, and failed to live up to the high expectations placed on it.” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. “Ms. Pierson has a lot of work ahead of her to create a culture that respects the important job the agency is tasked with. I hope she succeeds in restoring lost credibility in the Secret Service.”
With the pick, Obama is trying to send a clear message to the Secret Service rank-and-file, said Jeffrey Robinson, the co-author of “Standing Next to History: An Agent’s Life Inside the Secret Service.”
“The boys will be boys excuse will never work again—not as long as she is there,” Robinson said. “All that crap that went down in Cartagena, that won’t ever happen again.”
Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent who worked with Pierson, said the new director is “tough but not overwhelming” and is well-respected in the agency. He added that Pierson will be a good pick to help the agency move past Cartagena.
“The men and women of the service…are looking to leave this behind them,” said Bongino. “This is going to be a page turner for the Secret Service. I think she’s a great pick—she is reform minded, and she’s seen it, not just done it.”
Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan announced his retirement last month after a nearly three-decade career and seven years as head of the agency.
In testimony before Congress last year, Sullivan apologized for the conduct of Secret Service personnel in Colombia.
Pierson was appointed to the position of chief of staff on Aug. 3, 2008. Before her appointment, she served as the Secret Service’s assistant director of the Office of Human Resources and Training, a position she held since June 2006.
She is a native of Orlando and began her career with the agency in 1983 as a special agent assigned to the Miami Field Office, after having served three years as a police officer in Orlando.
Arnette Heintze, a retired Secret Service agent who worked extensively with Pierson, said the career agent has “solid credentials that nobody can question.”
As for the first woman director of the agency, Heintze said, the “service is more than ready.”
Heintze said he first worked with Pierson in the mid-1980s on a wave of identity-theft cases involving Nigerian nationals that spread across the United States. Later, they worked on the protective detail for President George H.W. Bush.
“I knew her as a solid criminal investigator, with a good reputation as a street agent,” said Heintze, who served as special agent in charge in Chicago before his retirement in 2003.
“No one can question that she has the experience and understanding of the job as a special agent,” Heintze said. “She’s got all the credentials, and now she’s got the backing of the president.”
As the chief of staff, Heintze said, there is “no question” that Pierson would have “weighed in” on the review into agents accused of consorting with prostitutes while on detail in Cartagena, Colombia.
“I think her appointment will go over well,” he said.
Rosanne Manghisi, executive director of the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives, described Pierson’s appointment as “a great opportunity.”
“We are really excited for her,” Manghisi said. “We like to see women in high-ranking jobs, but we also like to see the right woman.”
Manghisi said she didn’t view Pierson’s selection as necessarily linked to last year’s sex scandal involving the agency.
“There are always incidents that occur under different commands,” she said. “I would think that she was just the best qualified for the job.”
Former Secret Service Director John McGaw, who headed the agency from 1992 to 1993, said recent incidents involving the Secret Service, including last year’s Cartagena scandal, “opened the door for change.”
“This probably should have happened a long time ago,” he said.
Aamer Madhani and Kevin Johnson write for USA Today.