Day with Obama costs man his job

03:03, Nov 04 2014
WHOOPS: A day with US President Barack Obama cost Kenneth Tate his job.

Kenneth Tate toiled for years as a construction worker and corrections officer, and he has no doubt that his last job - working as a $US42,000-a-year private security guard at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - was the best he ever had.

The high point was an afternoon seven weeks ago when he was assigned to accompany President Barack Obama, who was visiting the agency's headquarters here for a briefing on the Ebola epidemic.

It was not only that his bosses had entrusted him with staying close to such an important dignitary. It was that, as an African-American born in Chicago, he was going to meet the nation's first black president, a man he deeply admired.

But by the time Obama's visit was over, Tate was on the way to losing his job.

As Obama's motorcade was preparing to leave the CDC, Tate tried to take a picture on his mobile phone as a memento. Angry Secret Service agents told him he had gotten too close to the Beast, as the presidential limousine is known. When the agents relayed to Tate's bosses what had happened, they reacted angrily.

"This was unjust and has been a nightmare," Tate, 47, said in an interview last week. "I've tried to rationalise it. It won't go away."

But it took several weeks before the full consequences of the incident became clear. An investigation conducted shortly after Obama's visit revealed that Tate was carrying a CDC-issued firearm, a violation of Secret Service protocols - and a security lapse that the agency's director at the time, Julia Pierson, never mentioned to the White House.

Then, on the same day that Pierson testified at a contentious hearing on Capitol Hill about how a fence jumper with a knife gained entry to the White House, the Washington Examiner revealed that Obama had been on an elevator with a CDC security guard who was carrying a gun in violation of Secret Service protocols.

The story added to a growing debate over whether the Secret Service was failing in its most basic duties. Some news media organisations, as well as RepJason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said - erroneously - that the security guard had been convicted of felonies. Tate had been arrested several times, including for robbery and assault, but never convicted.

The next day, Pierson resigned. But in Tate's view, he is the real victim.

"From the reports, I was some stranger that entered the elevator," he said in an interview here at the office of his lawyer, Christopher Chestnut. "I mean, I was appointed."

The Secret Service and the CDC have not released a chronology of what occurred that day, making it difficult to assess the accuracy of Tate's account. A Secret Service official, who was given a summary of Tate's account, said it was largely consistent with what an agency investigation had found. He said the inspector general's office of the Department of Homeland Security is investigating the incident.

But William R Banks, president of Professional Security, the private security firm that was Tate's employer, said in an email that Tate's description of the day's events "are not correct," though he declined to say what was inaccurate. He confirmed that Tate "did not have any felony or misdemeanour convictions." The CDC declined to comment.

According to Tate, the day Obama travelled to the CDC started the way every work day did, with being issued a .40-calibre Smith & Wesson handgun and two magazine clips. Tate said he holstered the weapon on his belt under his suit jacket.

He was then told by his supervisors that he was going to operate the service elevator Obama was going to use. Everything appeared to be going right for Tate. The previous day he had taken off for his birthday and won $US800 playing his birthday digits in the lottery.

About 2:25 pm, the presidential motorcade arrived at the back entrance of the CDC On the elevator ride, Tate said, the president struck up a conversation.

"He acknowledged me, said how you are doing. He said, 'What's your name?' I told him my name, and he extended his hand, shook my hand, and I said it's a pleasure to meet him. And I proceeded to escort him upstairs."

"I was just proud," Tate said. "That was a big accomplishment to me." He said one of the Secret Service agents told him it was remarkable that Obama had talked to him, considering it had taken the president two years to acknowledge the agent.

Tate said that also on the elevator was "one of the little ladies who is always speaking on the news." The president's national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, was with him that day.

After Obama's meetings, Tate took him back down to where the limousine was waiting. After the president got in, Tate tried to take a picture. He said he thought nothing of it because he had taken photos of other dignitaries before - including one with Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York.

When a Secret Service agent officer waved at him to get back, Tate said he headed into the building.

An agent he passed on his way inside said someone was probably going to lose his job because no one was allowed so close to the limousine. Tate said he had no idea why the agents were so concerned since he did not believe he had disobeyed any of their instructions.

A few minutes later, he said, his bosses angrily pulled him aside. Secret Service agents then took him into a conference room to question him.

"I was upset. I'm nervous because I'm like, I don't understand what's going on," he said. Tate said the images he took on his smartphone were of the limousine and the agents around it - similar to ones that often are taken by news crews. He said the Secret Service ordered him to delete them; he complied. After the Secret Service interview was completed, Tate's bosses took away his CDC badge. The next week he was given his letter of termination.

Tate said he still has not been provided with an explanation from the CDC or the contractor about why he was fired. Making matters worse, his 27-year-old son - who had worked at the CDC as a contractor for seven years - was unexpectedly dismissed two weeks after the incident for "downsizing" reasons, Tate said.

Now unemployed, he looks back with sadness on the day he met the president.

"It was something to tell my mom - if I meet him everything will be complete," he said. "I didn't know it was going to be my job."


Sydney Morning Herald