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WASHINGTON - President Obama has named Julia Pierson, a longtime U.S Secret Service agent, as his first female director of the agency.

Pierson, 53, has been the service's chief of staff for more than four years.

"Julia is eminently qualified to lead the agency that not only safeguards Americans at major events and secures our financial system, but also protects our leaders and our first families, including my own," Obama said in a statement making the announcement. "Julia has had an exemplary career, and I know these experiences will guide her as she takes on this new challenge to lead the impressive men and women of this important agency."

Pierson's appointment comes nearly a year after the agency -- charged with protecting the president and top administration officials and visiting dignitaries -- was rocked by a prostitution scandal. Several agents, who traveled to Cartagena, Colombia, to do advance work for Obama's visit last April, brought prostitutes back to their hotel rooms .

Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan announced his retirement last month after a nearly three decade career and seven years as head of the agency.

In testimony before Congress last year, Sullivan apologized for the conduct of Secret Service personnel in Colombia.

Pierson was appointed to the position of Chief of Staff on August 3, 2008. Prior to her appointment, she served as the Secret Service's assistant director of the Office of Human Resources and Training, a position she held since June 2006.

She is a native of Orlando and began her career with the agency in 1983 as a special agent assigned to the Miami Field Office, after having served three years as a police officer in Orlando.

Arnette Heintze, a retired Secret Service agent who worked extensively with Pierson, said the career agent has "solid credentials that nobody can question.''

As the first woman director of the agency, Heintze said the "service is more than ready.''

Heintze said he first worked with Pierson in the mid-1980s on a wave of identity theft cases involving Nigerian nationals that spread across the United States. Later, they worked on the protective detail for President George H.W. Bush.

"I knew her as a solid criminal investigator, with a good reputation as a street agent,'' said Heintze, a former agent-in-charge in Chicago before his retirement in 2003.

"No one can question that she has the experience and understanding of the job as a special agent. She's got all the credentials and now she's got the backing of the president.''

As the chief of staff, Heintze said there is "no question'' that she would have "weighed in'' on the review into agents accused of consorting with prostitutes while on detail in Cartagena, Colombia.

"I think her appointment will go over well,'' he said.

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