WASHINGTON - The Secret Service said Thursday it is probing new accusations of agent misconduct in El Salvador, where members of a presidential advance team reportedly were seen paying for sex at a strip club.
The explosive allegations are the latest claims to hit the presidential protection force still reeling from a Colombia sex scandal that saw eight agents dismissed, and follow revelations that three US Marines and a State Department employee were punished for involvement with a prostitute in Brazil.
"Earlier this week, the US Secret Service received a call concerning the allegations" in El Salvador, the agency said in a memo to lawmakers, a congressional source told AFP.
CBS television's Seattle affiliate KIRO 7 Eyewitness News quoted a subcontractor who worked "extensively" with the Secret Service advance team, and stayed with the agents and some military specialists days before President Barack Obama's trip to the country in March 2011.
The worker witnessed agents who "partied hard" at a popular San Salvador strip club, according to Chris Halsne, the investigative reporter who broke the story.
"Our witness tells us he repeatedly saw the Secret Service agents exchange money for sexual favors within the club, and on at least two occasions, those agents took escorts back to their hotel rooms," Halsne said on CBS.
"The owner of that strip club, when I went to speak with him, verified that, indeed, Secret Service had been there that week - it had been a popular week."
The agents also "openly bragged that they did this all the time," Halsne said.
The White House was mum on the allegations.
"I simply don't have anything for you on that from here," Obama's spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
Asked whether the president previously knew of the claims, he said: "I don't know that any of us were aware of it until we read newspaper reports."
While the Pentagon is investigating 12 military personnel allegedly involved in the Colombia events, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said "there's no investigation ongoing" regarding the El Salvador accusations.
But two days earlier, he said three US Marines and an embassy staffer in Brazil "were severely punished" and sent home over an incident involving a prostitute, another potential black eye in the broadening scandal.
The Secret Service made it clear it was taking the El Salvador situation seriously.
The elite protection squad has been in the spotlight over Colombia, where agents allegedly brought sex workers back to their hotel rooms in Cartagena, in a scandal that has brought deep embarrassment to the agency in an election year.
At a Senate hearing Wednesday, Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano said she and Obama had full confidence in the agency's director Mark Sullivan, but pledged to "leave no stone unturned" in her investigation.
Napolitano said she saw no evidence of an agency-wide problem, insisting there have been no complaints of similar misbehavior at any time during the past two and a half years, a period during which the agency provided protection on more than 900 foreign trips and 13,000 domestic trips.
But should the El Salvador twist prove true, it would put the entire culture of the service under even greater scrutiny.
In a statement, the Secret Service said it was aware that the Colombia scandal "has generated several news stories that contain allegations by mostly unnamed sources.
"Any information that is brought to our attention that can be assessed as credible will be followed up on in an appropriate manner," it added.
The strip club owner made clear he hosted other American officials too, including embassy staff and FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents.
According to Halsne, the subcontractor said he worked with the security advance team, including "snipers, K9 teams and explosives sweeps."
But the Secret Service stressed it "does not deploy 'K9' or 'explosive sweep' individuals during the advance phase of a protective trip."
The State Department weighed in on Thursday to say it will inquire with its embassy in San Salvador over the latest allegations.
"Given our policies designed to help governments prevent sex trafficking, it's not in keeping with the behavior that we want to advocate and display ourselves," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.