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US envoy to Belgium denies soliciting prostitutes

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(GlobalPost/GlobalPost)

The US envoy to Belgium Tuesday denied "baseless accusations" that he trawled for prostitutes in a park, as the State Department hit out at charges top staff tried to hush up sex-and-drugs charges.

"I am angered and saddened by the baseless allegations that have appeared in the press and to watch the four years I have proudly served in Belgium smeared is devastating," ambassador Howard Gutman said in a statement.

He made the statement after CBS television news on Monday reported that it had obtained a secret October 2012 internal memo by the State Department's independent watchdog, the Inspector General.

The memo claimed that senior State Department officials had sought to quash investigations into eight cases of alleged misconduct by agents at the diplomatic security bureau as well as diplomats.

In one case, officials revealed that they were told to stop investigating an American ambassador "who held a sensitive diplomatic post and was suspected of patronizing prostitutes in a public park," CBS reported.

Gutman was not named specifically in the CBS report, but since the TV report came out, his name has been widely circulated in US media as being linked to the scandal. He staunchly defended his name on Tuesday.

"I live on a beautiful park in Brussels that you walk through to get to many locations and at no point have I ever engaged in any improper activity," said Gutman, who has been in post since August 2009.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki refused to comment on individual cases, but she stressed the draft memo had contained "a number of unsubstantiated accusations."

"We of course take every allegation of misconduct seriously, and we investigate them thoroughly," she reiterated.

Other alleged cases involved an underground drugs ring working near the US embassy in Baghdad said to be supplying security contractors with drugs.

Members of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton's security detail were accused of engaging prostitutes on foreign trips, while a security official in Beirut was said to have sexually assaulted foreign nationals.

"I can assure all of you that if the secretary, or previous secretary, were presented with documented evidence of misconduct, they would take appropriate action," Psaki told reporters.

Some of the investigations into the alleged misconduct had already been closed and some were still ongoing, Pskai said, adding that to her knowledge none of them had been sent to the Justice Department for criminal proceedings.

CBS reported that the ambassador under suspicion had been called back to Washington to meet with Undersecretary of State for Management, Patrick Kennedy, but was allowed to return to his post.

In a separate statement Tuesday, Kennedy said that in his four-decade career he had always acted to hold "accountable anyone guilty of wrongdoing."

"It is my responsibility to make sure the department and all of our employees -- no matter their rank -- are held to the highest standard, and I have never once interfered, nor would I condone interfering, in any investigation."

The scandal is another blow to the diplomatic security bureau, which was sharply criticized over last year's attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, in which the ambassador and three other US citizens were killed.

Outside former law enforcement officials have now been brought in to investigate the allegations of a cover-up.

Congressman Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called for answers from new Secretary of State John Kerry, writing in a letter that "the notion that any or all of these cases would not be investigated thoroughly by the department is unacceptable."

The eventual report released in March by the Inspector General does not mention any of the specific cases raised in the draft memo.

But it says the bureau's special investigations division lacked "independence" as well as "a firewall" to stop "hierarchies from exercising undue influence in particular cases."

The head of the division was also "vulnerable to pressure from above."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130611/us-envoy-belgium-denies-soliciting-prostitutes