WASHINGTON - The White House is refusing to send its social secretary to Congress on Thursday to testify about an uninvited couple who were allowed into last week's state dinner for India's prime minister. The refusal prompted complaints from the top Republican on the committee holding the hearing.
Another House of Representatives Republican emerged from a closed Secret Service briefing to blame the episode on a Secret Service officer who let the attention-hungry couple through the first security checkpoint although the pair had no invitation to President Barack Obama's state dinner for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. A top Obama administration official also laid a share of the responsibility on the White House staff.
The Secret Service is responsible for the president's personal security. The interlopers mingled with the crowd, and the wife was photographed standing in close proximity to Obama and to Vice-President Joseph Biden.
The ranking Republican member of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Peter King, was the first to ask that White House social secretary Desiree Rogers, herself a guest at the dinner, be called to testify at Thursday's hearing.
By not sending Rogers, King said, "the White House is creating a needless confrontation and is raising serious issues about its judgment on the night of the state dinner."
Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan has agreed to testify. Lawmakers are waiting to hear whether party crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi would accept the committee's invitation as well.
The Salahis have been trying to land a part on a Bravo network reality show, "The Real Housewives of D.C.," and were filmed by the Bravo show around town as they prepared for the White House dinner.
Defending the decision not to let Rogers testify, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs cited the separation of powers and a history of White House staff not testifying before Congress. Gibbs also said the first family is "quite pleased" with Rogers' performance.
In the past, at state dinners and similar events, a member of the White House social office or other White House staff stood with the Secret Service as guests entered. No one from the White House was with the Secret Service on Nov. 24. There were no plans for a White House staff member to be there, and it was the Secret Service's responsibility to make sure that people arriving to attend the dinner were on the approved list.
"After reviewing our actions, it is clear that the White House did not do everything we could have done to assist the United States Secret Service in ensuring that only invited guests enter the complex," White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina wrote in a memo Wednesday to the staff about new procedures.
The Secret Service has admitted it should not have let the Salahis in and is investigating how it happened.
The White House reviewed its policies as well. Messina decided White House staff would be at the security checkpoints at future events to help clear up discrepancies about guests, Gibbs said. From now on, a staff member also must check guests off the invitation list while the Secret Service makes sure they have been properly cleared.
On Tuesday night, when the White House threw a party for nearly 100 volunteers who spent the past few days decorating the White House for Christmas, a staff member stood with the Secret Service as guests arrived.
Wednesday afternoon, Secret Service Deputy Director Faron Paramore briefed some House members. Republican Rep. Darrell Issa told reporters afterward that a Secret Service officer did not follow security protocols.
"It's very clear that there was one person who allowed these two individuals to go" through the first security checkpoint, Issa said. "That's something that the Secret Service is clearly responsible for. I know a lot of people want to hold the White House responsible. At this point we're taking the Secret Service at their word. They made the mistake."
Copies of emails between the Salahis and a Pentagon official have undermined the couple's claims that they were invited to the state dinner honouring the visiting Indian prime minister. The Salahis pressed their friend, Pentagon aide Michele Jones, for four days to score tickets to the big event. By their own admission in the emails, the Salahis showed up at the White House gates at 6:30 p.m. without an invitation "to just check in, in case it got approved since we didn't know, and our name was indeed on the list!"
Meanwhile, the Salahis appear to be facing severe financial problems.
The Oasis Winery, of which Tareq Salahi is sole owner, filed for bankruptcy in February, claiming assets of $335,000 and liabilities of $965,000 including $224,000 in unpaid bills for a suite at the Washington Redskins professional football team's stadium outside the capital.
A charity polo event and a foundation run by the Salahis have been mired in controversy and financial disarray.
Three vendors who served the annual polo cup event, created in 2006, said they had not been paid, The Washington Post reported. The organizer of a separate polo tournament in Aspen, Colorado, told The Aspen Times the Salahis owe him $19,500 for their entrance fee to last year's tournament. Barry Stout says he allowed the Salahis' Team Land Rover to participate because he needed a fourth team.
The Salahis' non-profit Journey for the Cure, established in 2004, did not register with the state of Virginia to raise money until last month, a spokeswoman for the state regulatory agency said Wednesday. Money from the Salahis' polo event was supposed to have benefited the foundation.
Associated Press writers Ben Evans, Ann Sanner, Darlene Superville and Pete Yost contributed to this report.
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