The White House staff member whose job was to supervise the guest list for state dinners and clear invitees into the events says she was stripped of most of her responsibilities earlier this year, prompting her to resign last June.
The account of Cathy Hargraves, who formerly served as White House "assistant for arrangements," raises new questions about whether changes that she says were made by President Obama's social secretary, Desiree Rogers, may have contributed to the security lapses that permitted Virginia socialites Michaele and Tareq Salahi to crash the state dinner for India's prime minister last week and get themselves photographed with the president.
Hargraves tells Declassified in an exclusive interview that although she had originally been hired as a White House political appointee in 2001, she landed a new position on the White House residence staff in 2006 and was specifically detailed to the social office to work on state dinners.
Her job duties included overseeing the invitations for guests at state dinners and keeping track of RSVPs, she says. On the evening of state dinners, she says, she physically stood at the East Gate portico entrance and greeted each of the guests as they arrived, checking their names off a computerized printout of those who had been invited.
But when she met with Rogers last February and went over her job responsibilities, she says, the new social secretary told her, "We don't feel we have a need for that anymore." Rogers's explanation, according to Hargraves: "In these economic times, I don't think we're going to have very many lavish expensive dinners. It wouldn't look very good."
A White House official (who asked not to be named because of the ongoing investigation) has refused to comment on any aspect of Hargraves's account, saying, "It doesn't matter," because the Secret Service has already publicly apologized for violations of its own procedures that allowed the Salahis to crash the Tuesday-night event.
Not only were the aspiring reality-TV contestants not on the invited guest list for the evening, according to a Secret Service official who also asked not to be identified talking about an ongoing probe, "it does not appear" their names had even been entered into the Secret Service's computer system, the standard step for any guest going into the White House complex. "There is no question this was a huge mistake on our part," says the official, adding that the Secret Service may provide a more detailed account in the next few days.
"The Secret Service said they made a mistake and they are taking action to identify exactly what happened, and they will take the appropriate measures pending the results of their investigation," says Nicholas Shapiro, a White House spokesman.
Still, Hargraves's account may be relevant because White House social secretary Rogers has publicly acknowledged that nobody from the social office was physically present at the White House East Gate entrance during Tuesday night's dinner to resolve any questions about whether the Salahis were invited. (This has prompted Rep. Peter King, the ranking Republican on the House homeland-security committee, to suggest the social office's policies should be reexamined as part of a congressional investigation into the incident.)
The White House official insists none of that really matters, because the Secret Service had been given the contacts for a social-office employee to check if any questions arose about any guest trying to enter. But the White House aide says, and the Secret Service official has confirmed, that that employee (who had replaced Hargraves within the social office) wasn't contacted either.
Hargraves, however, says the lack of a social-office employee on the scene at the gate might have made a difference. During her tenure, she says, it was not uncommon for guests at state dinners to arrive only to discover that their names hadn't been placed on the official guest list. In such situations, she says, she always refused the people entry until she could verify that they had actually been invited.
If she had been on the job at the White House last Tuesday night, the Salahis "would not have made it past the East Gate portico," she says. Once she had ascertained that they had not been invited, she says, she would have called in the Secret Service officer who let them through in the first place, and "they would have been escorted out."
After her tense meeting with Rogers last February, in which Hargraves says the social secretary made clear she did not want her to continue in the same role she had before, Hargraves says her job was essentially downgraded to what she calls a "data-entry clerk": her new job was simply to enter the names of White House guests into the Secret Service's computers for clearance, not to broadly supervise state dinners and manage the invitations and arrival of guests. Dissatisfied with her new role, she says, she quit on June 5 and moved with her husband, a State Department employee, to Houston. (Her staff slot was initially filled by a volunteer, who was later promoted to a full-time position but without her broad responsibilities for overseeing the guests at state dinners, she says.)
In some ways, Hargraves's account is reminiscent of culture clashes that have arisen in the past between outgoing and incoming White House staff members. Moreover, Hargraves acknowledges that the new Obama staff may have distrusted her because she had originally served as a political appointee in the office of the cabinet secretary under President Bush. But Hargraves, who is a registered nurse by profession, says she has never worked on a political campaign and, as far as she is concerned, her loyalty was to the White House as an institution, not to the Bush administration.
"For me, it was all about the house," she says. "For me, [state dinners] are magical moments, and you have to be so organized. A state dinner requires a lot of work, and maybe they didn't realize this going into it."