August 2008 Ethical Hero – Lewis C. Merletti

Few of us get the opportunity to meet a true leader.  Fewer still get to spend time with one who is also a genuine hero.

An authentic leader is someone committed to absolute integrity.  Their voice and their vision not only inspire loyalty but motivate those around them to live up to a higher standard.

I’ve been privileged to spend time with a man who demonstrates all these characteristics and one more, humility. (It’s a sure bet that he’s cringing at the moment he’s reading this.)

The 19th Director of the United States Secret Service Lewis Merletti, like many in the Service, became a hero the moment he chose to protect the life of the President of the United States with his own.  Merletti’s career spanned 25 years and included serving on the Presidential Protective Division for Presidents Reagan, H.W. Bush and Clinton.

Lew Merletti is the kind of leader who prefers to stay in the background, quietly doing his job, calmly leading by example.  Only in rare instances, will leaders like this step forward to take a high profile, public stand.

In April, 1998, for the first time in our nation’s history, in a moment that no one could possibly have imagined, the director of the Secret Service was asked to testify against a sitting president in court.  Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr was investigating President Clinton’s testimony regarding the Paula Jones case and his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.  Starr wanted to question Merletti and a number of agents on the Presidential Protective Detail regarding a number of non-criminal issues that were of interest to the Independent Counsel.

In a declaration made in opposition to Starr’s Motion to Compel Testimony from Secret Service agents, Director Merletti argued that agents could refuse to testify because they are shielded by a “protective envelope” privilege similar to those covering doctors, lawyers and clergy. (The privilege, it was pointed out, did not extend to any area that covered an agent witnessing the commission of a crime.)

Additionally Merletti had a concern that ultimately came to fruition when sensitive protective information was publicly disclosed by the Independent Counsel revealing the location of some of the security posts held by agents at the White House.

At the core of Merletti’s statement to Starr was this passionate defense of trust:

“The history of the Secret Service provides a strong foundation for this tradition of unequivocal trust. The motto of the United States Secret Service is ‘WORTHY OF TRUST AND CONFIDENCE.’ This tenet is so central to our mission it is emblazoned in the Secret Service Commission Book.

“I feel so strongly about this creed that when I speak to agents upon their graduation, I tell them that the ‘most important’ factor in the Secret Service Commission Book is the one in which ‘I commend you to the entire world as being worthy of TRUST and CONFIDENCE.’

“This trust and confidence cannot be situational. It cannot have an expiration date. And it must never be compromised.”

Lewis C. MerlettiIn a conversation, Merletti added, “For the Secret Service, the issue of trust and confidence [is] decidedly non-partisan and non-political; the training and activities of U.S. Secret Service personnel transcend political party or the crisis of the moment. We live according to an unwritten code, an invisible web of obligation; we would sooner die than fail.

“The decision I made, [contending that agents be exempt from testifying] was not made in a vacuum. Although I had a strong sense of what the Service’s position should be, I knew that the decision I made would not only have historical implications but impact the future of the Secret Service’s mission.  Therefore, I sought the counsel of the four living former Directors.  These were men of integrity, trusted men who led our agency in the past.  Additionally, I asked the former Special Agents in Charge of the Presidential Protective Division for their input.  To a man they responded, ‘trust and confidence is what this Agency has always stood for. You’re the first to be tested… Don’t let us down.’

“I firmly believe that history will record our stance as one that was prudent, well planned, and required for the survival of our Agency’s reputation and its ability to successfully carry out its critical National Security mission.”

Although he could not prevent the Independent Counsel from questioning agents about Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky, Merletti took the fight all the way to the Supreme Court and along the way became a shining example of just what true leadership in government should be.

On May 10, 2008, Lewis C. Merletti was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.  This medal was established in 1986 by the National Coalition of Organizations (NECO) and pay tributes to the ancestry groups that comprise American’s unique cultural mosaic.  The recipients are listed in the Congressional Record, honoring those who have made outstanding, and enduring, contributions to our nation and to the world.

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