With the hacking and release of 36 million apparent accounts on the website for cheaters Ashley Madison – no doubt by a scorned lover seeking revenge – we learned that more than 15,000 account emails reportedly were government emails.
We’re not boo-hoo’ing for those whose extra-marital fantasies, trysts, and affairs are now exposed (though we do feel very bad for the spouses or kids of those who have been exposed). As my colleague Charlotte noted recently, we are sad – or perhaps cynically laughing- at the fact that our tax dollars are funding these affairs.
The exposure itself is probably heavy punishment, especially if they are in the middle of divorce proceedings. But we are curious as to whether federal employees can expect to face any kind of official reprimand at work. The answer is likely no.
As the Washington Post explains, the morality rules in federal offices (including the military) are cut and dry. If you watch porn on federal computers or property on work time, you’re in trouble and may get fired.
However, is setting up a date with someone other than your spouse or significant other the same as watching porn? That’s questionable if you kept your conversation on the up-and-up and forwent the pornographic picture and video sharing. What if you opened up a profile and browsed accounts four hours daily or just once ever, but it never went further than that?
Apparently, among other things that government workers are barred from doing from their government e-mail addresses is to endorse a product or service, sell a product for profit, advertise or do anything else that “interferes with the agency’s mission or brings discredit to the agency.”
So do the actions of all 15,000 or more federal workers count as “interfering with the agency’s mission or bringing discredit to the agency”? If they exchange classified information with their cheating partner, probably. Is the act of just engaging in a tryst or seeking out an extra-marital affair enough?
The Washington Post reports:
The rules vary on the kind of personal use of work computers that’s allowed on government time.
But the employees who browsed the goods on Ashley Madison or used the Internet connections in their federal offices to pay membership fees may or may not have been doing anything sexually explicit…
“Is the agency making moral judgments about whether or not it’s okay to be arranging an affair?” asked Joseph Kaplan, a federal employment attorney with Passman & Kaplan in Washington, who says it could be wrong to automatically fire someone or haul them in on misconduct charges just because they got to the site through their government e-mail address.
“Where do they draw the line between what’s acceptable and what’s not?” Kaplan asked.
Let’s say an employee is having an affair and e-mailing his or her lover from work, but the infidelity did not start on Ashley Madison. Why does that person fall under the radar of a supervisor, while the employee with the hacked e-mail address does not? A federal employee could be in an open relationship. Or going through a divorce and testing the waters. That’s still doing something other than work at work. But it suddenly seems more innocuous than the most salacious affairs we can imagine, federal personnel experts said.
Those who used military addresses to access the site could face disciplinary action, since adultery can be a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
As a reminder, even if some federal workers are found to have exchanged porn on the clock, the process to actually get them out may be as long as the investigations to identity them and their conduct. As we’ve reported, many federal bureaucrats misbehave on the clock and get away with it or are placed on perpetual paid leave. Of all workplace employers, the government is notoriously slow in dealing with misbehavior to the cost of the taxpayers and the detriment of those agencies.
Still, the government-employed cheaters have learned the hard way that Hank Williams’s infamous song was right: “Your cheating heart will tell on you.”