President Barack Obama said that Secret Service official Julia Pierson will become the agency’s new director, making her the first woman to hold the position.
Pierson, 53, currently is the agency’s chief of staff. She will replace Mark Sullivan, who retired this year after 30 years with the Secret Service, which is responsible for protecting the president.
“Julia is eminently qualified to lead the agency that not only safeguards Americans at major events and secures our financial system, but also protects our leaders and our first families, including my own,” Obama said today in a statement released by the White House.
The appointment marks a notable shift for an agency that has been entangled in controversy after nine of its agents were dismissed or voluntarily retired after allegations that employees hired prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia.
Senator Tom Carper, the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, called the appointment “welcome news and a proud milestone.”
“Ms. Pierson’s vast experience has prepared her to lead this agency with its critical protective, investigative and cybersecurity missions,” Carper, a Delaware Democrat who oversees the agency in his role as chairman, said in a statement.
Pierson was appointed chief of staff in the director’s office in 2008. She started as a special agent in the agency’s Miami field office in 1983 and later joined the presidential protective division. She has held various management positions in the Secret Service.
Prior to her time in the Secret Service, Pierson was a police officer with the Orlando Police Department.
Sullivan had served as Secret Service director since 2006, making his tenure the third-longest in agency history. His stint was marred by a scandal last year, when allegations surfaced about agents paying for prostitutes in Colombia. The agents were in the country preparing security for Obama’s arrival for a summit.
The agency questioned more than 200 people in the course of the investigation of the Colombia scandal. It identified nine employees who were found to have engaged in “serious misconduct” for actions that included the alleged involvement with prostitutes.
Nine U.S. military service members received non-judicial punishments for their involvement in the April 2012 incident.
Obama expressed confidence in Sullivan throughout the investigation and said upon his departure that he had led the agency “with incredible dedication and integrity.”
Sullivan’s role in investigating the prostitution allegations and openly answering questions from lawmakers drew praise on Capitol Hill.
“When controversy occurred in his agency, he took swift action and responded to oversight with direct and forthright answers,” Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican and chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a statement when Sullivan announced his departure in February.
The Secret Service, part of the Homeland Security Department, has a dual role as the chief protective service for the president and as an authority to police the nation’s financial infrastructure.
Created in 1865 to combat counterfeiting of U.S. currency, the agency began providing part-time protection for the president in 1894. In 1902, the agency assumed full-time responsibility for protecting the president. The service employs about 7,000 people and has a $1.6 billion annual budget, according to its website.