WASHINGTON -- Scores of U.S. Secret Service employees improperly accessed the decade-old, unsuccessful job application of a congressman who was investigating scandals inside the agency, a new government report said Wednesday. An assistant director suggested leaking embarrassing information to retaliate against Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House oversight committee.
The actions by the employees could represent criminal violations under the U.S. Privacy Act, said the report by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general, John Roth. "It doesn't take a lawyer explaining the nuances of the Privacy Act to know that the conduct that occurred here - by dozens of agents in every part of the agency - was wrong," the report said.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson personally apologized to Chaffetz again Wednesday, the congressman told The Associated Press in an interview on Capitol Hill. Johnson did not disclose whether any employees had been punished. "It's intimidating," Chaffetz said. "It's what it was supposed to be."
Johnson said in a statement Wednesday that "those responsible should be held accountable" but did not provide further details.
"I am confident that U.S. Secret Service Director Joe Clancy will take appropriate action to hold accountable those who violated any laws or the policies of this department," Johnson said. "Activities like those described in the report must not, and will not, be tolerated."
Clancy also apologized Wednesday for "this wholly avoidable and embarrassing misconduct" and pledged to hold those responsible for the data breach accountable.
"I will continue to review policies and practices to address employee misconduct and demand the highest level of integrity of all our employees," Clancy said in a statement.
Employees accessed Chaffetz's 2003 application for a Secret Service job starting 18 minutes after the start of a congressional hearing in March about the latest scandal involving drunken behavior by senior agents. Some forwarded the information to others. At least 45 employees viewed the file.
One week later, Assistant Director Ed Lowery suggested leaking embarrassing information about Chaffetz in retaliation for aggressive investigations by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee into a series of agency missteps and scandals, the report said. Days later, on April 2, the information about Chaffetz unsuccessfully applying for a job at the Secret Service was published by The Daily Beast, an Internet publication.
"Some information that he might find embarrassing needs to get out. Just to be fair," Lowery wrote March 31 in an email to fellow Assistant Director Faron Paramore.
Lowery, who is in charge of training, told the inspector general he did not direct anyone to release information about Chaffetz and "believed it would have been inappropriate to do so," the report said. He told Roth the email was "reflecting his stress and his anger."
Lowery declined to comment though a Secret Service spokesman.
Chaffetz told the AP that Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., would conduct any congressional oversight hearings into the matter.
Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said anyone at the agency "unwilling or unable to meet the highest of ethical standards should not be a part of the Secret Service."
The inspector general said that under U.S. law and Secret Service rules, employees were required to report such behavior to supervisors. The investigation found that 18 supervisors or members of the agency's senior executive service knew or should have known that employees had improperly accessed Chaffetz's job application, but only one person attempted to inform the Secret Service director, Joseph Clancy.
Clancy said he was not aware of what was going on until April 1.
During the March hearing, Clancy testified for the third time about an incident weeks earlier in which two senior agents were accused of drinking for several hours at a bar before driving a government vehicle into the White House complex, as on-duty personnel were investigating a suspicious item dropped on a roadway near the White House. It was the latest in a string of embarrassments, missteps and security breaches for the agency charged with protecting the president and his family.
Clancy took the helm of the agency on a temporary basis late last year after then-Director Julia Pierson was ousted after the disclosure of two security breaches, including an incident in which a man armed with a knife was able to scale a White House fence and run deep into the executive mansion.
Investigation: Secret Service tried to discredit US lawmaker