Life in the Secret Service

The prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago was just putting onto the green of the tenth hole at the Doral Country Club when the fever Secret Service agent Patrick Cruise had been fighting all day finally overtook him. He felt chills, then the sweats soaked his dark suit as he rode in a golf cart with another agent assigned to protective duty. The leader of his detail told him to go home, but Cruise stayed through another eight holes before driving to Weston and crawling into bed. The next day he felt and looked much worse. A medical student, an old friend from Boston staying at his home, finally convinced Cruise he needed to check into a hospital the following morning, September 28, 1999.

In the emergency room of Memorial Hospital West in Pembroke Pines, Cruise was told he probably had hepatitis. (Forms of hepatitis can be picked up in myriad ways, including from unprotected sex and intravenous drug use.) Cruise called Ovy Burgos, the supervisor who had told him to go home, to let him know the doctor's theory. Later that day, as Cruise was lying in a hospital bed, special agent Tom Poitras called and asked if he needed anything. Cruise said no, but Poitras insisted he would stop by with some ice cream and a magazine. Around 4:30 p.m. Poitras walked into Cruise's hospital room with a pint of Ben & Jerry's and a Maxim magazine. If Cruise had not been looped on medication and completely exhausted, he might have wondered why Poitras, an agent he barely knew, had taken the time to visit him in the hospital.

He soon found out why. The next day Poitras stopped by again and told him he was concerned that Cruise might have somehow infected Prime Minister Basdeo Panday while on the golf course. "You may have given him something, so I was wondering if you would mind signing this release of medical records form," Poitras said, according to Cruise's notes that later became part of a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigation and a civil lawsuit. "This way we can ... let the prime minister know that he ... should be examined by his physician immediately, just to be safe." Sounded reasonable to Cruise, so he signed the release form. Later that day his doctor informed him that the tests showed he actually had mononucleosis, not hepatitis, and he would be fine after a few weeks of rest. Cruise called his bosses to tell them the results. He later found out that Poitras hadn't bothered to pick up his medical records until five days later. He doubts the prime minister was ever contacted.

Cruise wasn't told until after he was released from the hospital that a toxicology screening had come back showing "presumed positive for cocaine and amphetamines," according to his medical records. He knew the test had to be wrong. Weeks later, after his bosses suspended him and launched a full-scale investigation aimed at firing him for illegal drug use, Cruise suddenly realized the cause of the pattern of harassment he had been experiencing at work for months. His bosses had suspected he was a drug user, and when they thought he had hepatitis, it looked like a golden opportunity to find out. Even after Cruise proved his innocence with more rigorous tests, Cruise alleges that the Secret Service behaved as if he were a criminal and tried to hound him out of the service.

Two years later the 27-year-old is still battling the agency to clear his name and salvage a career. "I busted my balls for this job," he laments. "It's heartbreaking to be where I am."

Patrick Cruise believes members of the Secret Service have crossed many ethical and legal boundaries in the agency's campaign against him. The details of his claims are contained in the lengthy EEOC complaint, an administrative hearing process in which Cruise is fighting to get his job back, and in a civil lawsuit against Memorial Hospital West and a doctor that is being handled on contingency by the Fort Lauderdale law firm of state Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell (D-Tamarac). "I think an injustice has been done to a young man whose career was in front of him," Campbell says. "I believe there is a correlation between what is happening to him on an employment level and what happened to him in the hospital."

Why would the Secret Service spend so much time (about three years) and money (Cruise figures a half a million to a million dollars) to get rid of an employee who did nothing wrong? Who in fact is the son of a loyal, lifelong employee of the service himself? Good question. Unfortunately the Secret Service isn't answering any questions at all about Patrick Cruise or its own conduct, claiming it is an internal personnel matter.

Because of this secrecy, we don't know the full details behind the agency's determination to force Patrick Cruise out. We do know that on November 24, 2000, Cruise was fired, not for drug use but for allegedly leaving his post monitoring phones, for perhaps 25 minutes. At an administrative appeal hearing July 12, 2001, in Miami, a Secret Service attorney sought to bar New Times from the public proceeding. She argued it could represent a threat to national security if a reporter were allowed to observe the hearing. Judge Ronald Weiss didn't buy it. At the hearing, several agents testified that no other agent had ever been disciplined, much less fired, for the same behavior. Cruise's supervisor Burgos admitted under questioning that he didn't think the transgression warranted dismissal.

In Cruise's history with the Secret Service, a pattern of harassment emerges that is consistent with the theory that, for whatever reason, Cruise's bosses believed he didn't belong. "The question is whether [the perception of drug use] is the reason," attorney Campbell notes. "If you get classified as being a druggie, do organizations like the Secret Service pay attention to the evidence or the innuendoes?" Documentation from the various cases indicates that his bosses did not expect Cruise to fight back as hard or as effectively as he has. What they really didn't count on was this agent's secret weapon: his father.

Patrick's father, retired Secret Service agent Tom Cruise, believes there is a simple answer to the question of the agency's motives. The Secret Service is a close, hierarchical brotherhood that has unparalleled access to the most powerful people in the world. And the service conducts its own internal investigations, unlike such agencies as the FBI and DEA, which lost some of that prerogative to the Department of Justice's Office of Inspector General. Power, prestige, and lack of oversight have created a culture that allows too few individuals to hold enormous influence over roughly 2500 agents. Sometimes it means good agents are punished unjustly and not-so-good agents are shielded and promoted. "The Secret Service wants to portray itself as this elite agency, protectors of presidents and kings -- and elite investigators as well," the career agent ruminates. "The service is so arrogant they [think they] can't make mistakes, and even if they do, they can't admit it."

Patrick Cruise always intended to follow his father as a protector of presidents and a hard-boiled buster of counterfeiters and Social Security-check scammers. In 1997 the Boston-area native was hired by the Secret Service and transferred to the field office in Miami. The Miami office, located down the street from the Doral Country Club, is one of the five largest Secret Service outposts in the nation.

Miami's special agent in charge, Frank Estrada, oversees roughly 90 to 100 people, arranged in squads that specialize in counterfeit money, bank fraud, check fraud, and protective intelligence. They commonly team with other agencies such as the FBI, local police, and the U.S. Postal Service on cases with overlapping jurisdictions. Agents also can be called at any time to shadow a foreign head of state passing through South Florida, or to be part of a larger detail protecting the president, vice-president, or their families. Most agents also spend time each year traveling with protectees, as the service calls them, wherever in the world they may need to go.

Estrada says his field office is one of the most active because Miami is a popular destination for both counterfeit money and foreign dignitaries from Central and South America. He claims that in the first six months of 2001, local agents seized well over a million dollars in fake bills. "We have a lot of counterfeit coming through from Colombia," he notes. "It's the biggest source of counterfeit coming into the United States."

Patrick Cruise came into this exciting environment planning to distinguish himself by becoming the kind of statistic-earning investigator his father had been in 21 years as an agent. At first his plans seemed to be working out. After just three months in the check fraud squad, Cruise was promoted to the more prestigious counterfeit team. He enjoyed being part of an elite, mysterious agency respected by the public and other law-enforcement agencies. He made friends with fellow agents, several of whom later testified to his personal and professional integrity at a hearing and in affidavits.

The case against him didn't develop overnight. It started with a kernel of suspicion that grew in the insidious way of office rumors, and was fed, he believes, by personality clashes with a couple of supervisors, including Estrada. It didn't help the relationship when Cruise, feeling threatened by Estrada, took pictures of the man's boat, which he kept illegally stored in an agency warehouse. It also likely angered service officials when Tom Cruise began his own intense lobbying on his son's behalf.

Suspicions about Cruise's drug use began, he believes, sometime in 1998, soon after he began dating a twenty-year-old clerk at the Miami office. Simi Grace was a looker -- a tall, model-thin blonde who owned a pair of the prettiest green eyes Cruise had ever seen. Cruise is convinced that some people at the office thought the high-strung girl was on drugs, and eventually extended that opinion to him. It's the only thing that makes sense to him. He recalls a cryptic comment made to him by a supervisor, John Gill. "He came up to me and said, “I hope you don't think you're fooling anyone. We know you're dating Simi.'"

It was a strange comment, but Cruise didn't connect it to a theory until more than a year later. In September 1998 Grace became the first and only office clerk Cruise can recall to be randomly drug-tested by the Secret Service. She passed. "I know she wasn't using drugs, because I wouldn't hang around someone like that," Cruise declares. "I worked too damned hard to get here."

Over the next year, Cruise's relationship with officials in the Miami field office steadily eroded. He was told his performance wasn't satisfactory and was denied a promotion and pay increase. Gill made his life difficult by questioning his whereabouts and activities at all times and berating him for the smallest infractions. He was scheduled for a random drug test in March 1999 that turned out to be not so random because a supervisor had added his name to the list. (An EEOC investigator noted in June 2000 that the Secret Service was unable to verify Cruise was randomly selected.) At the time Cruise chalked it all up to a bad interpersonal relationship with Gill, who had the power to make him squirm. He asked his dad for advice and got it: Work harder and keep your head down. "I was of the school where you keep your mouth shut, you don't make waves," Tom Cruise allows. "I regret that advice in hindsight."

Cruise's professional travails were undoubtedly linked to his personality, a younger, brasher version of his father's hard-charging self-assuredness that probably came across as arrogance in a twentysomething agent. Especially in a blue-eyed, baby-faced New Englander who could easily pass for a high school student. "I've known Patrick since he was a boy," former U.S. postal inspector and family friend Roger Hunt confides. "He's a great kid and a good agent. There is a certain cockiness because he was raised in [the Secret Service]. He's got some of his father's experience along with his own." Tom Cruise concurs. "He grew up in the Boston Irish-Catholic way," he explains. "We are very parochial, and we think our way is the right way and being assertive is the way we get things done. Maybe they thought he didn't come in appropriately subdued, maybe that ruffled some feathers."

In April 1999 Patrick Cruise flew back to Miami from a protective mission in New York City. Somewhere between La Guardia Airport and Miami, American Airlines lost his luggage, he says. He informed his supervisor Gill, because his government pager was lost with the luggage. Cruise says Gill acted like he had stolen his own luggage to get money from the airline. The Secret Service launched an investigation into the incident that eventually resulted in a 30-day suspension for Cruise, allegedly for lying to airline personnel and misusing his office because he identified himself as an agent. Cruise, outraged, is appealing that decision.

The elder Cruise began calling and writing old friends in the service, asking for help in stopping what he felt had clearly become a campaign of harassment against his son. He found his former brothers often were reluctant to get involved and some even actively turned against him. The process has caused him to reexamine his feelings about the agency to which he had dedicated much of his life. "People that are members of the Secret Service are elevated in the eyes of their friends and community and also in their own mind," he speculates. Cruise says he couldn't believe it when a friend of 25 years told him that if the service was going after someone, he must deserve it. "It hurts more than anything in the world," he grumbles. "Being an agent was everything to me. I loved the job and I loved the people. Having my son want to follow in my footsteps was truly wonderful."

Together, close-knit father and son have formed their own investigative team and estimate they've sunk more than $175,000 into a legal defense. Tom works his contacts in the service and other government agencies to unearth information that could help his son. He has filed complaints with the Treasury Department's Office of Inspector General against Frank Estrada and several other agency personnel, and attempted to have two Secret Service attorneys disbarred in their respective states for their actions in regard to his son's case.

The legwork has proved useful. For instance Tom learned that when his son was in the hospital in September 1999, Poitras wasn't the only special agent who had been instructed by superiors to get his medical records. The father claims another special agent asked his wife, a clerk at the hospital at the time, to steal Patrick Cruise's medical-record information prior to Cruise giving the Secret Service the right to have them. He thinks Poitras then lied to Cruise to get him to sign a medical release form so the records could later be used to fire and prosecute him.

Indeed the service attempted to get the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida to file criminal drug charges against Cruise, based only on the hospital toxicology report later proven false by more tests. The U.S. Attorney's Office declined the case. (After Patrick had recovered from mono and returned to work, the agency put him on administrative leave for three months while it investigated possible drug use. A rigorous drug test of Cruise's hair proved the hospital report wrong. The service was also notified in a letter from Dr. Christopher Holland, a senior medical-review officer for the Department of Health and Human Services, that the hospital testing was not reliable enough to justify "any significant punitive action against this agent based solely on this drug test result.")

Those who have worked with Tom say the agency shouldn't have been surprised he would apply the same determination that made him a topnotch investigator to the mission of exonerating his son. "He's like a mongoose," laughs Bill Montgomery, former head of the service's field office on the island of Cyprus and now retired in Ohio. "If you have somebody like that coming after you, he's going to keep coming." Hunt, the retired postal inspector from Boston who worked with the elder Cruise for years on mail fraud cases, says he's never met an agent more aggressive or more knowledgeable of the law. "Tom had more of these [arrest] stats than any other agent in the Boston office, and that just comes from sheer hard work," Hunt proclaims. "There are a lot of agents that had a lot of respect for Tom. He loved the Secret Service."

How does a young agent, who inherited from his father a profound regard for the Secret Service along with classic Irish looks, end up on the agency's enemies list? How does a father who has built a reputation and a network of friends from 21 years in the service decide to wage war against the entity that defines his life? The Cruises claim Patrick is a victim of a perception problem: It appeared as though he fell out of line in an agency dedicated to keeping its members in lockstep.

This, unfortunately, is nothing new in the culture of law enforcement. Last week's indictment of thirteen Miami police officers for crimes committed to cover up a police shooting is just the latest local incident. Newspapers in every major city in America have reported other stunning examples of unethical or criminal behavior committed by a minority of federal agents working under the auspices of the FBI, the DEA, ATF, or U.S. Customs. In most cases the problem could be summed up thusly: Pressure to nail bad guys (sometimes whether guilty or not) was high; authorities were willing to wink at questionable tactics that got results; and the likelihood of facing serious consequences, if caught, was low because law-enforcement agencies are good at protecting their own. The Boston Heraldran a story May 21, 2001, detailing a flubbed Secret Service and Boston police investigation that incorrectly pinned a 1999 bomb threat against President Clinton on a Massachusetts postal worker. Two years and $30,000 in debt later, the man was quietly exonerated by authorities. He plans to sue.

The murky side of the well-respected agency was illuminated in a lawsuit filed last year by more than three-dozen current and former black agents, alleging decades of discrimination. Their stories are the familiar and disturbing tales told before by others in federal agencies and in many police departments. Bill Montgomery, a former agent involved in the suit, says he loved his job, but certain influential members of the Secret Service made it hard on him. Based on his own experiences with discrimination, he is not entirely surprised by what happened to Patrick Cruise. "I had a [special agent in charge] who told me that as long as he was in the service, I wouldn't get promoted," the 29-year career veteran remembers. "And he was right: I didn't get promoted until he was gone. There's some real good guys, but the good guys won't stand up for you because they fear retaliation. That's the way it is with the Secret Service."

Tom Cruise believes his son's case is indicative of a fundamental problem trickling down from the highest levels of this tight-knit and rarely questioned agency with a direct line to the president. The agency, he predicts, is going to earn "a huge black eye" in public perception before it's all over because of the lengths it has shown itself willing to go to destroy one of its own. "If we are going to throw the Constitution and due process out the window for one of our agents, what happens to the poor innocent person on the street?" he asks. "Luckily we have insurance and we know how to fight these guys. [But the average person], how do they come up with $175,000 to defend themselves?"

Tom says the Secret Service has tried to retaliate against him by going after his job at the Social Security Administration because he has vigorously defended his son through letters and phone calls to high-ranking officials. He has also asked the Treasury Department's Office of Inspector General to investigate possible illegal acts committed by a half-dozen current and former officials of the Secret Service.

After more than three years of investigations and a formal complaint filed by Patrick to the EEOC in January 2000, the agency fired him November 24, 2000. The service alleged that Patrick left his post at the duty desk of the Miami office for up to 28 minutes (although they had difficulty proving this time frame in an administrative hearing). The desk agent is responsible for monitoring the phones and radio channels coming into the office, an important job in case a special agent in the field has an emergency. That Saturday afternoon there was no one in the field and no calls had come into the office. Patrick claims he was away from the desk for just a few minutes, on a bathroom and coffee break down the hall.

Regardless of who is right about the time, the service's draconian response to this infraction indicates there were other motives. As Patrick's attorney pointed out at a July 12, 2001, hearing seeking reinstatement, the service has never fired, or even suspended, another agent for such a minor transgression. The attorney also provided examples to the judge of cases in which other agents had committed much more egregious offenses, and received little or no punishment. In one case, he said, a Miami agent actually fell asleep while manning a command post down the hall from where President Clinton was staying. The agent was merely reprimanded and has since been promoted. Frank Estrada admitted in a deposition to storing his personal boat on government property, a misuse of office that could be ruled a felony if the service took the same hard line toward a high-ranking official as it has toward a lowly agent. Cruise doesn't believe Estrada will get more than a slap on the hand.

No matter what happens, 27-year-old Patrick Cruise's career in the Secret Service is over. Even if he wins in court, there's no way he will be able to enjoy success in such a small world where there will always be whispers and the threat of payback. At best he can hope to salvage his reputation by getting his job back, and then transfer to another federal agency. "It's been a part of my life for as long as I can remember," Cruise bemoans. "Walking away in disgrace is not an option." Another option he's considering is suing the pants off the Secret Service and several of its members, who he believes violated the rules and even the law in their quest to destroy the only career he ever wanted. "I will fight the Secret Service until I die, and you can quote me," Cruise says in his strong Boston accent. "I'm going to get the bastards and prove everything they did."


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