April 14, 2012 -- Eleven U.S. Secret Service agents and five military service members are under investigation and facing possible reprimand for allegedly cavorting with prostitutes and drinking excessively at a Colombian hotel ahead of President Obama's visit.
A heated argument between at least one of the alleged prostitutes and at least one of the Secret Service agents on Thursday first alerted local authorities to the alleged behavior at the Hotel Caribe in Cartagena, officials told ABC News.
"My understanding is that 11 secret service agents did bring women to their room and there was a dispute the next morning when one of the women did not leave there room," House Homeland Security Chairman Rep. Peter King told ABC News. "One did not leave, police came and she refused to leave until she was paid for her services. So that is what started all this."
Adult prostitution is legal in designated "tolerance zones" in Colombia, though restricting the sex trade to those zones has been difficult, according to the U.S. State Department. "Sexual tourism" is reportedly widespread in Cartagena and other coastal cities.
After the argument in the room, hotel authorities went down to the reception desk to see who else of the American guests may have signed in female guests -- alleged prostitutes -- for the evening, a senior Obama administration official told ABC News.
Initially, that inspection led the hotel authorities to have questions about 22 Americans -- 17 Secret Service agents and five special operations soldiers who were there to assist the Secret Service, the official said. Their names were reported to the lead U.S. military official on the ground.
U.S. officials have stressed that some of those about whom the hotel raised questions may merely have been attending a party and violating curfew. But Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan made a prompt decision to relieve the entire detail of duty and have them return to Washington for questioning.
"I don't think inspector Sullivan would have all of them leave if there was not evidence of prostitution," King said.
Sources familiar with the situation also said the allegations against the agents include excessive drinking.
The group included special agents, Uniformed Division officers and two supervisors, sources said. None were assigned to the Presidential Protective Division.
The Defense Department also announced today that five personnel who were assigned to assist the Secret Service have been restricted to quarters for alleged inappropriate conduct and will return to the United States for questioning at the conclusion of the mission.
"The nature of the allegations, coupled with a zero tolerance policy on personal misconduct, resulted in the Secret Service taking the decisive action to relieve these individuals of their assignment, return them to their place of duty and replace them with additional Secret Service personnel," Assistant Secret Service Director Paul S. Morrissey said in a statement.
"These actions have had no impact on the Secret Service's ability to execute a comprehensive security plan for the President's visit to Cartagena," he said.
All 11 Secret Service members were interviewed today in Washington and have been placed on administrative leave. If the allegations are proven true, they could face reprimands and firing potentially.
Commander Gen. Douglas Fraser, who heads the U.S. Southern Command, said he is "disappointed by the entire incident and that this behavior is not in keeping with the professional standards expected of members of the United States military."
He also pledged a thorough investigation of the military members who may have participated in the incident, and punishment, if appropriate, in accordance with established policies and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said President Obama was made aware of the allegations but said it "would not be appropriate for the President to characterize something that's being looked into by the Secret Service at this time."
Carney insisted, however, that the incident has not been a distraction for Obama, who is participating in the two-day Summit of the Americas with other Western Hemisphere leaders.
Officials said the investigation of the agents' behavior would center less on moral or legal aspects of the alleged behavior and more on whether Secret Service and U.S. military protocols were violated -- and whether the security of the president could have been compromised.
"If all this happened, this compromised the agents themselves," King said. "It left [the agents] open to be threatened and blackmailed in the future. ... They could have been threatened or blackmailed secondly to bring prostitutes in an area that's a secured zone. It just violates a basic code of conduct."
The Secret Service most recently faced public embarrassment and intense scrutiny in November 2009 when several agents allowed two uninvited guests onto White House grounds for a state dinner and photo line with the president. The so-called "Gate-crasher" incident resulted in three agents later being placed on administrative leave.
ABC News' Mary Bruce and Devin Dwyer contributed to this report.