WASHINGTON — Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan announced his retirement Friday, bringing to a close a turbulent period for the law enforcement agency that included a South American prostitution scandal and a pair of White House gate-crashers.

In nearly seven years as director, Sullivan had to answer serious questions from lawmakers on two occasions about his employees' actions on the job and off.

Last May, in testimony before Congress, Sullivan apologized for the conduct of Secret Service employees caught in a prostitution scandal in Colombia. Thirteen agents and officers were implicated after an agent argued with a prostitute over payment in a hotel hallway in Cartagena, Colombia.

The employees were in the Caribbean resort city in advance of President Barack Obama's arrival for a South American summit in April. After a night of heavy partying in some of Cartagena's bars and clubs, the employees brought women, including prostitutes, back to their hotel. Eight of those Secret Service employees were forced out of the agency, three were cleared of serious misconduct and at least two were fighting to get their jobs back.

The incident prompted Sullivan to issue a new code of conduct that barred employees from drinking within 10 hours of the start of a shift and from bringing foreigners to their hotel rooms

In 2009, Sullivan had to answer questions about how a pair of aspiring socialites talked their way into a state dinner at the White House. That the pair made it into the highly secured event was not only a violation of protocol but raised questions about how easily an unauthorized person could gain close access to the president and vice president.

"In this case, I fully acknowledge the proper procedures were not followed and human error occurred in the execution of our duties," Sullivan told lawmakers after the incident.

Sullivan struck a similar tone in May when he apologized to lawmakers for the behavior of the Secret Service employees in Colombia, insisting that the incident was not indicative of a larger culture problem at the agency.

Sullivan's retirement is effective Feb. 22. His replacement has not been announced.

In an internal message Sullivan sent to employees Friday, he said he was "extremely proud to have had the opportunity to work with the men and women of the Secret Service and represent an agency so deserving of its reputation as one of the finest law enforcement agencies in the world."

Sullivan joined the Secret Service in 1983 after three years as a special agent in the Inspector General's Office at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He was appointed director in 2006.

Despite the scandals and questions from lawmakers, he maintained support from Obama, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and numerous lawmakers.

"I want to thank Mark Sullivan for nearly 30 years of service to our nation at the United States Secret Service, a tenure that saw the agency protect five first families including my own," Obama said in a statement. "And since 2006, as director, Mark has led the agency with incredible dedication and integrity."

Napolitano thanked Sullivan for his service. "His commitment to keeping our country and its top officials safe is unparalleled and his devotion to the mission of the Secret Service and Department of Homeland Security has been unwavering," she said in a statement.

In three decades with the Secret Service, Sullivan's career took him to Detroit, Columbus, Ohio, and ultimately Washington, where he served on the security detail for President George H.W. Bush.

Sullivan, who is from a large Irish Catholic family, has been married to his wife, Laurie, for more than 20 years, and they have three daughters. He loves hockey and played in an adult league until a few years ago.

"If you were casting someone for the role of director of the Secret Service, he looks the part," Sullivan's former boss in the service's Detroit division, James Huse, told the AP last year. "He's a tall, handsome Irishman, with grey hair and the demeanor of a born leader."

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Associated Press reporters Eileen Sullivan and Josh Lederman contributed to this report.

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Follow Alicia A. Caldwell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/acaldwellap

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