(CNSNews.com) - Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Administrator Michele Leonhart said she is "offended by the behavior" of DEA agents who engaged in prostitution and sex parties while working on the taxpayers' dime.
But Leonhart told the House Oversight Committee on Tuesday there's nothing she can do about it except to write memos stating that "these kinds of behaviors require significant discipline."
If you can't fire the agents or even recommend that they be fired, "What the hell do you get to do?!" an exasperated Rep. Trey Gowdy asked her.
A March 2015 report from the Justice Department's Inspector General reviewed 77 sexual misconduct and sexual harassment cases at DEA, and the agents involved were mostly suspended for a few days, not fired.
"We were particularly troubled by multiple allegations involving several DEA special agents participating in 'sex parties' with prostitutes while working in an overseas office" (Cartagena, Colombia), the report said.
"The misconduct occurred for several years while these special agents held Top Secret clearances. Many of these agents were alleged to have engaged in this high-risk sexual behavior while at their government-leased quarters, raising the possibility that DEA equipment and information also may have been compromised as a result of the agents’ conduct."
The report also found that the agents "should have known the prostitutes in attendance were paid for with cartel funds." But 7 of the 10 agents who admitted attending the parties received only suspensions ranging from 2 to 10 days.
The report -- and Leonhart's own testimony on Tuesday -- drew scorn, disbelief and anger from both Republicans and Democrats on the committee.
"Under the civil service laws, I can't intervene in the disciplinary process," Leonhart testified. But she noted that last year, she "took action...to put the agency on notice that activity like that -- and I named it, prostitution; and named four or five other things -- required significant discipline."
"Do you have any idea how absurd that sounds to an ordinary human being?" Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) asked Leonhart. He called Leonhart's legal inability to hold agents accountable "nuts."
Rep. Trey Gowdy (S.C.) called Leonhart's testimony "stunning."
"If an agent stateside were soliciting a prostitute that was provided by a drug conspiracy he was investigating, what punishment would you recommend?" Gowdy asked her.
"I can't recommend a punishment," Leonhart said. "I would just hope that would be thoroughly investigated and, uh--"
"So you're telling me nobody cares what the administrator of the DEA thinks should happen to an agent. You're powerless to express your opinion. You have no First Amendment right when it comes to who works for your agency."
"I have expressed my opinion in a number of ways," Leonhart responded. "Last year I sent email and I sent a memo to every employee in DEA and put them on notice that this conduct was not acceptable."
She explained that "Under the civil service law, I cannot recommend a penalty, I can't intervene in the disciplinary process. I can't even make a recommendation to the deciding officials."
Leonhart explained that the two DEA "deciding officials" -- who are junior to her -- consult a penalty guide to mete out discipline. "And the penalty guide for this kind of activity is anything from reprimand to removal." Leonhart also said she has no say over agents' security clearance.
Gowdy erupted: "Honestly -- what power do you have? You have to work with agents over whom you can't discipline and have no control; and you have no control over the security clearance. What the hell do you get to do?!"
"What I can do is build on and improve mechanisms to make sure that the outcome is what we believe the outcome should be," Leonhart responded. "And that is what happened in Cartagena (sex parties over multiple years), and that is what is going to happen moving forward."
Gowdy then asked the Justice Department Inspector-General Michael Horowitz if the DEA agents knew that the drug cartels were providing the prostitutes.
"What we found, Congressman, from looking in the file is that they should have known," Horowitz said. He added that the agents were supposed to be investigating the cartels.
"So they were receiving prostitutes from cartels that they were supposed to be investigating. And she can't fire those agents?" Gowdy asked.
"I think as a matter of Title 5, she can't directly intervene in firing them. I do think one of the concerns we outlined in the report...is how they adjudicate these cases.
"They under-charge them in some instances. And so at DEA, for example, sexual harassment -- if you're charged with that, there's only one punishment -- removal. But if you're charged with conduct unbecoming or poor judgement...then you've got a range of penalties. And so one of the issues...is how you charge the case."
Leonhart told Gowdy she doesn't know if any of the prostitutes involved were underage or part of a human trafficking ring.
"Mr. Chairman," Gowdy concluded, "I would just find it impossible to explain to any reasonable-minded person how an agent cannot be disciplined for soliciting prostitutes from drug cartels that they were ostensibly investigating. I find that stunning."
"If somebody murdered somebody, could you fire him?" Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) cut in.
"If someone murdered someone, there would be criminal charges, and that's how they'd be fired," Leonhart responded.
Rep. Mulvaney also followed up, noting that if he were to flirt with a coworker in the office, and that behavior was found to constitute sexual harassment, he could be fired under civil service rules. "But I can take an underage hooker from a cartel I'm investigating, and you can't fire me. Is that what we're talking about here?" Mulvaney asked Horowitz.
"Actually, Congressman, if you charge the offense (sexual harassment), removal is a possibility. If you charge something less... you don't charge what actually occurred, that's when the ability to discipline is limited. And that's the concern we found, as you know, in our report."
After the hearing, Chaffetz told the Associated Press it's time for Leonhart to step down or be fired. "I don't have confidence in her, nor does the majority of the committee."