Where Were the White House Bouncers?

State dinner crashers raise questions about role of White House Social Office.

November 29, 2009, 9:20 PM

WASHINGTON, Nov. 30, 2009— -- With nearly a year of East Wing experience under her fashionable belt, White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers is facing questions about protocol procedures after two wannabe reality TV stars were able to crash the first White House state dinner of the Obama administration, an event in honor of the prime minister of India.

Virginia socialites Michaele and Tareq Salahi were able to make their way past layers of security despite not being invited to the event and not showing up on any of the official lists at the White House checkpoints.

Rogers, a longtime friend of the Obamas and former business executive in Chicago, knew the gargantuan assignment she was taking on when she assumed the role of social secretary for the Obama White House.

After all, President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama made it clear they wanted to bring change to the executive mansion and make their new home a more open, welcoming place to average Americans, like the ones they met over the years on the presidential campaign trail.

The responsibility of pulling that off falls to Rogers, who as social secretary is the principal coordinator for the social events at the White House and for the president and first lady.

The office works with all aspects of the White House staff, from the West Wing to the Residence Staff to the Secret Service, to plan and execute events on the famous grounds.

Rogers, who has been frequently profiled for her own personal style in addition to that of the Obamas, told Vogue last winter that her role as social secretary was to help Americans "visualize what the Obama presidency is about, the feelings Americans voted for -- inclusion, transparency, embracing people you might never otherwise learn about -- and also translating the splendor, that sweetness, that comfort of the White House to everyone."

After a pause, she smiled and admitted the obvious to the fashion magazine: "Enormous task."

Since January, the Obamas have been applauded by officials from past administrations and Washington social watchers for living up to their pledge to open up the White House.

Does the White House Social Office Bear Responsibility for State Dinner Security Lapse?

As social secretary, Rogers has organized and executed the largest Easter egg roll in White House history, with 30,000 visitors to the South Lawn; the White House music series featuring nights of jazz, country and classical music; and last week's state dinner.

But now Rogers, who told JET Magazine last spring that "no detail is too small to consider" in her job, is facing criticism for the Salahi incident and questions about whether protocol standards were upheld last Tuesday night at the White House.

A former White House staffer is making waves in Washington by claiming that if she were still in her job, the now-infamous gatecrashers never would have made it inside the White House.

Cathy Hargraves, who served as "assistant for arrangements" during the administration of President George W. Bush, told Newsweek that her role as the gatekeeper for guests at major White House events was diminished when the Obama administration took office.

Hargraves told Newsweek she resigned this June after Rogers changed her job description and revoked most of her responsibilities, essentially demoting her to a data entry clerk.

Hargraves told Newsweek that for years her focus was to supervise guest lists and clear invitees into the White House. On the night of major events, she was a fixture at the East Gate portico entrance, greeting guests, vouching for those who may have inadvertently been left off the list and turning away those who were not supposed to be there.

A former White House official said it was Hargraves who would "input all the names, take all the responses, give them to the calligraphers who would address the invites, do the place cards."

"On game day she was a key link to Secret Service because she was posted at the East Portico with them, because she was the most intimately knowledgeable of the list," this official said.

Rogers has said that nobody from her staff was working at the gates and check points last Tuesday night when the Salahis made it past security without an invitation. The couple spent up to two hours on the grounds, making it all the way to the Blue Room to shake hands with the president and Indian prime minister.

White House Fixing Blame on the Secret Service

One former White House official said that the management of guests at a large White House function like a state dinner is "huge, critical" and the social secretary's office has the most intimate knowledge of who the guests are because they have been working with the various staffs and departments to formulate the list.

There are occasions when an invited guest can inadvertently be left off the official list at the door, but at that point the social office and the Secret Service would work together to resolve any discrepancies.

"I can only speak to past practice and history will tell you that a name can inadvertently fall off a list, which is why a social office staffer who knows the list most intimately is helpful to [Secret Service] on the scene," a former official said.

The Secret Service told ABC News that they -- and they alone -- are responsible for what happened Tuesday night. They say it would have been easy for a guard to call and verify a guest in question, but that call never was never made.

Today the White House seemed to fix the blame on the Secret Service.

"The relay didn't happen because somebody was or wasn't there," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. "The relay didn't happen because nobody picked up the phone to relay the information."

Washington columnist Carol Joynt told ABC News that is shared fault between the Secret Service and the social office.

"There are people who should fall on their swords in both," Joynt said.

Rogers was at the dinner, but inside mingling with guests. Walking past a crowd of reporters who were gathered for the guest arrivals, Rogers paused to say which designer she was wearing that night (Comme Des Garcons).

A former first lady chief of staff ABC News spoke with could not recall a social secretary attending a dinner rather than working it.

"The only occasion that I know of that a social secretary sat down as a guest is when there is a last minute emergency cancellation and the social secretary was called on to fill in and sit down -- again part of the job to make things go smoothly," this official said.

Rogers declined a request by ABC News for an interview.

Who Is Desiree Rogers?

"A state dinner, especially the first state dinner of this administration, is your Super Bowl and the social secretary's job is a job and the job is to be there to sort of be the first hello after security," Joynt said.

Rogers came to the White House with a lengthy resume of executive positions back in Chicago, where she was a close friend of the Obamas. Her ties to the first couple go back decades: Her ex-husband, John Rogers, played basketball at Princeton with Michelle's older brother, Craig Robinson.

A native of New Orleans, Rogers graduated from Wellesley College and later Harvard Business School. She served as the former head of the Illinois Lottery and president of utilities Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas.

She has been profiled in Vogue magazine, with accompanying photographs in an Oscar de la Renta trench coat and Manolo Blahnik shoes. She attended Fashion Week in New York last spring and had a prime seat next to Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.

Rogers was something of a local celebrity in Chicago, a frequent fixture on the social scene who was known for her keen fashion sense.

Since taking on the role of social secretary for the youngest administration in decades, Rogers has added her own personal style to the execution of the Obamas' style. It was she who ordered the White House fountains be dyed green in honor of St. Patrick's Day last March, a nod to the tradition of dying the river green back in Chicago.

She also has played a key role in organizing outreach events that have brought local students, celebrities and artists to the White House.

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