What Does the United States Secret Service Do?
Recent news about deleted text messages on J6 obscure the fact that this agency's main job is to protect all of us, and the federal government, from grifters
Do you know someone who likes to know the story behind the story? Then please:
Have you ever wondered what the Secret Service does when they are not clustered around a President or Vice President? I have. Because most of what we hear about this federal agency, established in the Treasury Department in 1865 to suppress counterfeiting, is terrible.
Case in point: the week before last, Tony Ornato, a former member of Donald Trump’s security detail who became a public figure during Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony before the January 6 Committee, resigned from the United States Secret Service. Claiming he had planned to retire after 25 years anyway, Ornato said that his new notoriety had nothing to do with the decision and that he had “planned to retire and have been planning this transition for more than a year.”
Ornato has also retained a lawyer. After publicly refuting Hutchinson’s account of a brawl in the presidential limousine (when Special Agent Bobby Engel refused to take Trump to a Capitol building the insurrectionists had already begun to sack), the J6 Committee asked Ornato to come in for the third time and testify under oath. He has signaled that he will.
Ornato’s closeness to Trump should be worrisome for an agency like the Secret Service. Having taken a short leave from the agency to become deputy chief of staff for operations at the White House, Ornato is a critical witness, not just to the planning and execution of the insurrection but to what might have been in the January 6 text messages that have mysteriously disappeared. As of last month, the Secret Service was considering disabling the texting function on agency phones until they can better understand how not to erase them.
Ornato and the Secret Service top brass, now under the supervision of Homeland Security, have once again revived the image of the Secret Service as a department riven by scandal and dissipation. In April 2017, Maryland police arrested a member of Vice President Mike Pence’s detail after he met a sex worker in a motel. In November 2015, another agent assigned to the Obama White House was arrested in a sting set up to entrap child predators: he thought he was in contact with a 14-year-old girl who turned out to be an FBI agent. And in 2012, a nine-man advance team sent to prepare for President Obama’s visit to Colombia went out drinking, hired sex workers, and then refused to pay them, resulting in the women calling the police. As a result, they were cashiered, along with two of their supervisors.
So this caused me to ask: are these guys typical? Or are there other things to know about one of the oldest federal police forces? As it turns out, the answers are no and yes. Protecting the President, Vice President, and sundry family members is only a tiny part of what the agency does. And while the Secret Service investigates threats against the President and some drug, porn, and arms trafficking, the agency's history at the Treasury still mainly defines them. Agents are primarily tasked with policing illegal financial transactions on federally-controlled communication lines, including the internet, or federally-protected institutions, like banks.
Therefore, the Secret Service’s most consistent and unsung task is to investigate financial fraud. Those cases include fraud against the government (theft from the various programs associated with Covid-19 relief is a significant part of the caseload right now), fraud committed against individuals, and employees who defraud their own and other people’s businesses. Although the Department of Justice prosecutes these cases, the Secret Service figures out that a crime has taken place and where the money has gone.
Just yesterday, because of the Secret Service, an Albuquerque, NM, bookkeeper pled guilty to stealing $2 million from her employer. But it gets better: apparently, the Secret Service investigates fraudulent credit card schemes, identity theft, and—my favorite—romance fraud and fictitious Nigerian princes. Take 25-year-old Banabas Ganidekam, for example. In less than a year, “Ganidekam received approximately $189,404 from at least 14 victims who were convinced to send the money for a variety of false and fraudulent reasons. The victims include a woman who in January and February 2020 sent thousands of dollars to a false persona she believed was her boyfriend.”
Or 29-year-old Edwin Agbi, of Indianapolis, mastermind of “an international group of scammers” who created fake profiles on OurTime, an online dating service designed for adults over 50.” Many seniors believed
that they were in genuine relationships with the fake personas. Eventually, the scammers asked the victims for money, explaining that they needed funds for various reasons, including taxes and travel expenses. The victims sometimes sent the requested money.
Agbi’s role in the scheme was to receive money from the victims and pass it along to his partners. The victims mailed packages containing large amounts of cash to Agbi’s home in Indianapolis because they believed he would get the money to their significant other. Agbi received those packages under the alias “Kareem Sunday.” Upon receiving the cash, Agbi would keep a portion for himself and then have the remaining money deposited into his co-conspirators’ foreign bank accounts.
In 2018 and 2019, multiple packages containing cash were delivered to Agbi’s home. In total, the packages contained at least $75,000 in cash. During the investigation, federal agents intercepted one of the packages sent by a victim to Agbi and found that it contained $20,000 in cash.
The list of crimes is astonishing. Most of them were committed by ordinary Americans who were smart enough to come up with a grift but not smart enough not to get caught. Other than the folks who claim to want to be your grandmother’s boyfriend, there are people who steal from the condo board, siphon millions away from cryptocurrency exchanges and banks, launder money (which sometimes you have to do after you steal it), and steal from the American Red Cross Hurricane Relief Fund. One amazing woman defrauded a bank by impersonating victims of identity theft—isn’t that convoluted?
It’s a colorful cast of characters—at least as colorful as the grifters who inhabited the White House between 2016 and January 20, 2021. So when you see Tony Ornato again in the fall, probably on videotape in a January 6 Committee Hearing, remember this: while agents assigned to the White House get into more trouble than they should, there are a lot of dedicated computer geeks and accountants standing between you and a faux Nigerian prince.
And they are Secret Service agents too.
Katha Pollitt posted a lovely tribute at The Nation to her friend Barbara Ehrenreich, who died last week at 81. “Barbara accomplished so much, but what I love most about her work is that it was never boilerplate,” Pollitt writes. Ehrenreich “always found a way to take her argument to a deeper level, whether it was the historical facts she discovered in research or concepts she developed to describe things that had gone unnamed—“professional managerial class,” a term she developed in 1977 with her then-husband the psychologist John Ehrenreich, is a byword today—or simply what she walked out her front door to find.” (September 6, 2022)
Authorities restored water pressure in Jackson, MI, yesterday, but why was the system so neglected and broken down in the first place? At Popular Information, Judd Legum reports that "the problems with Jackson's water supply date back decades." Although the most recent crisis occurred because of flooding, the state's unwillingness to invest in a Black city led to Jackson entering into a $90 million contract with corporate giant Siemens that left residents high and dry. (September 6, 2022)
I keep hammering on this in my Twitter feed, but the GOP has perhaps the worst messaging I have ever seen in an election cycle. It’s a colossal unforced error that presumes that their own and independent voters are stupid people driven by rage. I am delighted that John Halpin at The Liberal Patriot agrees with me. “The pattern across all levels of the Republican Party is the same,” Halpin writes: “general policy disarray, few if any pragmatic alternatives to Democrats and a basic unwillingness to confront the party’s most critical weakness and electoral liability, Donald Trump.” And because of this, Democrats are plowing ahead and defining the political terrain. (September 6, 2022)
It has never occurred to me to wonder about the marital status of Evan McMullin, the independent endorsed by the Utah Democratic party who is challenging Republican Senator Mike Lee. But apparently, I am not a Republican who likes to cast aspersions on other people’s private lives. According to Dennis Romboy of The Deseret News, “McMullin, a BYU graduate who grew up in Washington state, spent much of his 20s and 30s working in a way that made it difficult for him to date, let alone get married. He spent 11 years in the CIA, often going undercover to hunt down terrorists in hostile foreign locations, including Southeast Asia and the Middle East.” McMullin’s lack of a family was an issue for white nationalist Trump supporters in 2016 that McMullin, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was single and childless. But that’s over! Last summer, McMullin married Emily Norton, a widow with five children. We at Political Junkie wish the McMullins all happiness—and a victory in November. (September 2, 2022)