DENVER - The arrest of a man named Steven Howards in June 2006 after he approached Vice President Dick Cheney at a Colorado ski resort and denounced the war in Iraq might have seemed, at the time, no more than a blip on the vice president's schedule.
But now the blip has become a blowup, with Secret Service agents - under oath in court depositions - accusing one another of unethical and perhaps even illegal conduct in the handling of Mr. Howards's arrest and the official accounting of it.
The revelations arise from a lawsuit Mr. Howards filed against five Secret Service agents, accusing them of civil rights and free-speech violations. They offer a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the Secret Service, which usually wears the standoffish, plainclothes cool of its mission like a cloak of invisibility.
The agent who made the arrest, Virgil D. Reichle Jr., said in a deposition that he was left hanging with an untenable arrest because two agents assigned to the vice president had at first agreed with a Denver agent that there had been assault on Mr. Cheney by Mr. Howards, then changed their stories to say that no assault had occurred.
Mr. Reichle, who did not witness the encounter, said in his deposition that he believed the vice president's security detail had wanted the Howards arrest to go away so that Mr. Cheney would not be inconvenienced by a court case.
Mr. Cheney has not been deposed, and his involvement in the arrest remains uncertain. But one of the three agents assigned to him, Daniel McLaughlin, said in his deposition that Mr. Reichle's description was backward.
Mr. McLaughlin said Mr. Reichle, who has since been transferred to Guam, asked him in a call several hours after the encounter to say that there had been an assault to bolster justification for the arrest.
By then, Mr. McLaughlin and another agent assigned to Mr. Cheney who is also a defendant in the lawsuit, Adam Daniels, had already filed statements that said there had been contact, but no assault. Another agent and co-defendant, Dan Doyle, who was based in the Denver office, sided with his officemate, Mr. Reichle, and said there had been. The fifth defendant, Kristopher Mischloney, an agent on Mr. Cheney's security team, said he was not close enough to see, but was named in the suit because he had assisted in the arrest.
Changing an agent's report would have been a federal crime.
"Did you believe that Agent Reichle was telling you in essence, 'I want you to commit the crime of making false statements in an officially filed Secret Service document?' " asked a lawyer for Mr. Howards, David A. Lane.
"When he made the phone call, that's what I - I interpreted it as, that was unethical," Mr. McLaughlin responded, according to a transcript of his deposition.
"Not just unethical but illegal?" Mr. Lane pressed.
In some ways, the hundreds of pages of transcripts of interviews of Secret Service agents - sealed under a court order that expired last week and obtained by The New York Times from Mr. Lane - have compounded the original questions about what actually happened that afternoon, when Mr. Cheney and Mr. Howards, a 55-year-old environmental consultant, came together at the Beaver Creek Resort, about two hours west of Denver.
Police procedural questions about whether Mr. Cheney was lightly patted on the shoulder, as Mr. Howards contends, or hit harder in a kind of straight-arm shove, as one Secret Service agent witness contends, or something in between as other agents have described, have been buried under a recrimination-laced free-for-all over what came next.
About 10 minutes or so after the encounter, well after Mr. Howards had walked away, he was arrested, and the Secret Service agents involved went about preparing their individual statements about what happened.
A spokesman for the Secret Service, Eric Zahren, said that because the case was open, he could make no comment and allow no interviews with the agents involved. A spokesman for Mr. Cheney referred questions about the case to the Justice Department; a spokesman there declined to comment because the suit is continuing.
Mr. Howards spent about three hours in the Eagle County jail. He said that Mr. Reichle had told him he would be charged with assaulting the vice president, but that local law enforcement officials filed only a misdemeanor harassment charge.
That charge was later dismissed at the request of the Eagle County district attorney, Mark Hurlbert, who said in an interview in October 2006 that he had been told that the government did not want to pursue the matter. Mr. Hurlbert said that he could not recall whether Mr. Cheney or the Secret Service had made that determination, though it was his understanding that the vice president did not want to prosecute.
Mr. Howards's lawsuit followed in late 2006. Mr. Howards, in his deposition, said that he touched Mr. Cheney's left shoulder with what he described as an open-palmed "pat" after saying that the administration's policies in Iraq were "disgusting," and that he then walked away.
The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, contends that the arrest was retaliation for having spoken up.
Mr. Reichle, the arresting agent, said he had made the arrest based on a physical demonstration of the encounter by one of the three agents there, Mr. Doyle, then a colleague in the Denver office, with the assent of two agents from Mr. Cheney's detail - Mr. McLaughlin and Mr. Daniels, both of whom in their later written reports said they had witnessed contact but saw nothing rising to the level of a crime.
In a telephone call with Mr. McLaughlin hours after the arrest, Mr. Reichle said he asked him only to report on the encounter as it had been originally described to Mr. Reichle - as an assault.
"I asked him if someone was pressuring him to change his testimony," Mr. Reichle said in the deposition.
"What did he say?" asked Mr. Lane, the lawyer for Mr. Howards.
"He says, 'No,' " Mr. Reichle said. "I said, 'Well, this isn't the rendition that I had heard three to four hours ago.' "
"And what did he say?"
"He hung up," Mr. Reichle said.
"He just hung up on you?"
Mr. Lane said he had requested that Mr. Cheney submit to a deposition but that he had been repeatedly turned down by the vice president's lawyers. But Mr. Lane said the mire of accusations and counteraccusations that have been exposed by the Secret Service testimony has made Mr. Cheney an indispensable witness.
"Given the wide differences of view, he is the only one with certain knowledge," Mr. Lane said. He said he planned to file a motion next week in Federal District Court in Washington to compel Mr. Cheney's participation.
On a tape of the deposition, Mr. Reichle, a former Colorado State Police trooper, takes on a kind of beleaguered tone at one point in his deposition, which was recorded in Washington in November. His jaw muscles ripple and twitch between answers, his teeth clenched.
"You would think if it was some sort of misunderstanding, somebody would have tapped me on the shoulder and said: 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, Gus, slow down. What you think happened isn't what happened,' " Mr. Reichle said. "At no point did that happen."
Mr. Reichle said he had told one of his supervisors in Denver that he believed everyone involved in the Howards incident should be given a lie detector test.
"I felt that Inspection Division should get involved here and that everyone involved should be offered a polygraph, to include myself," Mr. Reichle said.
"And what was the upshot?" Mr. Lane asked.
"Don't go there, Gus."
"What does that mean?"
"It means let it lie, drop it," Mr. Reichle said.
In his deposition, Mr. McLaughlin said that Mr. Reichle had used the word "cover-up" as early as the morning after the encounter.
Mr. McLaughlin said in his deposition that Mr. Reichle was waiting outside his hotel that morning.
" 'The vice president's detail is involved in a cover-up,' " Mr. McLaughlin quoted Mr. Reichle as saying. "I said, 'What are you talking about?' And he said, 'You guys are involved in a cover-up.' "
Asked in the deposition what he made of that, Mr. McLaughlin said, "I thought that he had taken a giant leap away from his good senses."
© 2008 The New York Times