Washington — Sen. Joe Lieberman does not plan to go quietly into retirement.
He put himself at the center of two high-profile scandals this weekend by saying he would initiate investigations into the Government Services Administration, whose employees had a expensive romp in Las Vegas, and the hiring of prostitutes by Secret Service agents and military officers in Colombia.
Republicans are using the scandals as political fodder, while Democrats hope for a quick resolution. But the motivations of Lieberman, an independent who is a member of the Democratic caucus, are less clear.
Paul Petterson, chairman of the political science department at Central Connecticut State University, said Lieberman may want to embellish his legacy before he leaves Congress after 24 years.
“He stakes his reputation on ethics,” Petterson said. “He sees this as one more way he can establish his rectitude.”
On a Fox news program Sunday, Lieberman said he was prompted to hold a series of hearings by the belief the scandals are symptomatic of bigger problems at the GSA and Secret Service.
“It’s hard to believe this was just one isolated incident,” Lieberman said of the prostitution scandal involving Secret Service and military officials on a security detail in advance of President Obama’s visit to Cartagena, Colombia, for the Summit of the Americas.
As the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, Lieberman said he would look beyond the Colombia incident and into the possibility of widespread misconduct in the Secret Service.
His first step was sending a letter this week to Mark Sullivan, head of the Secret Service, “asking him if this was a pattern,” Lieberman said. “They were not acting like Secret Service agents, they were acting like college students on spring break.”
Lieberman also said he’s studying the Secret Service’s code of conduct. He said it was interesting to note agents were forbidden from using “intoxicants” within six hours of duty.
The Pentagon is conducting its own investigation of military officials involved.
There are also several House panels that plan to look into the incident.
As for the West Coast GSA officials who used $800,000 of taxpayer money to throw themselves a party, “They were living in a strange bubble,” Lieberman said.
“When the economy is down, when people are struggling to pay their bills, when they’re struggling to pay their taxes — it’s outrageous that federal employees did this,” he added.
The senator also said he has an obligation to investigate the employees involved in the Las Vegas partying — and the rest of the GSA — to determine if there were other abuses and if the GSA regional offices have too much autonomy.
“We’re going to call in the leaders of the GSA to make sure they’ve had a good hard look at who the GSA does business with,” Lieberman said.
Richard Benedetto, a professor of journalism at American University in Washington, D.C., said he was surprised Lieberman did not immediately say he would investigate the scandals last week.
Instead Lieberman said he needed to study the issues further.
“I think that maybe he’s learned something that he can’t ignore,” Benedetto said.
On CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Lieberman said new revelations in the Secret Service scandal — including the report that one agent involved was staying at the same hotel that would accommodate the president — made the matter “more troubling.”
Benedetto also said “there’s no real political benefit” to Lieberman’s high-profile role as investigator of scandals because he’s leaving Congress.
Petterson, of CCSU, said Lieberman “really sees himself as an independent watchdog.”
“As long as he’s in the job, he sees this as his responsibility,” Petterson said.
Connecticut’s senior senator has relished his watchdog role for years. In 1998, when he still belonged to the Democratic Party, he called for an investigation into President Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
After becoming chairman of the Homeland Security panel, Lieberman held a number of important hearings, including ones that focused on the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, the massacre of 13 people at Fort Hood by a radicalized soldier and home-grown terrorism in general.
But Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brooking Institution, said he’s puzzled by Lieberman’s conduct.
“His committee had relatively little interest in overseeing these agencies in recent years,” Mann said. “Now he seems drawn to them primarily because of the publicity they receive, not because of the significance of their misbehavior.”
Lieberman’s decision to jump into the investigations of the scandals may also have been influenced by the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security panel, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who often works with him on issues.
Collins wanted a broad inquiry into the Cartagena scandal. On a Sunday news show she wondered if the scandal could have been avoided if the Secret Service, which is largely male, employed more women.