Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct: Is it only the little people who are taken to task?

Posted: 12:48 am EDT
Updated: 3:07 pm EDT
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In March 2012, AFSA’s General Counsel Sharon Papp reported about a State Department proposal related to the “state of affairs” in the Foreign Service ….no, the other kind of affairs:

In 2011, the State Department proposed disciplinary action against a handful of employees for off-duty conduct that it had not sought to regulate in the past (i.e., extramarital affairs between consenting adults). 

When we reviewed several sex-related grievance cases in 2012, we came to the conclusion that from the agency’s view, widespread notoriety is not required to demonstrate an adverse effect on the efficiency of the Service. Further, the potential for embarrassment and damaged to U.S. interests seems as weighty as actual embarrassment and damage. See: Sex, Lies, and No Videotapes, Just Cases for the Grievance Board

We recently received the following in our mailbox (edited to remove the most identifying details):

The married DCM at the embassy of a major Middle East ally slept with a married ELO whose husband worked for him. He blamed his alcoholism. As “punishment,” he was assigned as DCM at a significant high risk/high threat post. Next up? One of the top jobs at an embassy located in a Western European country.  Where’s the accountability at State? Is it only the little people that are taken to task? 

Well, that is an excellent question given another allegation we’ve received about another front office occupant involved in domestic violence overseas (another story we hope to write another day).

Extra-marital affairs, of course, are not mentioned anywhere in the Foreign Affairs Manual but below is what the regs say on sexual activity (pdf) and what constitutes, “notoriously disgraceful conduct.” Both sections were last updated in 2012, and applies to Foreign Service employees at State and USAID:

3 FAM 4139.1 Sexual Activity
(CT:PER-673; 04-27-2012) (Uniform State/USAID) (Applies to Foreign Service Employees) 

The agencies recognize that, in our society, there are considerable differences of opinion in matters of sexual conduct, and that there are some matters which are of no concern to the U.S. Government. However, serious suitability concerns are raised by sexual activity by an individual which reasonably may be expected to hamper the effective fulfillment by the agencies of any of their duties and responsibilities, or which may impair the individual’s position performance by reason of, for example, the possibility of blackmail, coercion, or improper influence. The standards of conduct enumerated in 3 FAM 4138 are of particular relevance in determining whether the conduct in question threatens the mission of the employing agency or the individual’s effectiveness.

3 FAM 4139.14 Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct
(CT:PER-673; 04-27-2012) (Uniform State/USAID) (Applies to Foreign Service Employees) 

Notoriously disgraceful conduct is that conduct which, were it to become widely known, would embarrass, discredit, or subject to opprobrium the perpetrator, the Foreign Service, and the United States. Examples of such conduct include but are not limited to the frequenting of prostitutes, engaging in public or promiscuous sexual relations, spousal abuse, neglect or abuse of children, manufacturing or distributing pornography, entering into debts the employee could not pay, or making use of one’s position or immunity to profit or to provide favor to another (see also 5 CFR 2635) or to create the impression of gaining or giving improper favor. Disqualification of a candidate or discipline of an employee, including separation for cause, is warranted when the potential for opprobrium or contempt should the conduct become public knowledge could be reasonably expected to affect adversely the person’s ability to perform his or her own job or the agency’s ability to carry out its responsibilities. Evaluators must be careful to avoid letting personal disapproval of such conduct influence their decisions.

One might argue that an extra-marital affair between two consenting adults is a private matter.  And in most cases, it is; who wants to be the sex police?  But. If the allegations are true, can you really consider it private, particularly in a case that involves the second highest ranking public official at an embassy and an entry level officer (ELO) assigned under his command? Even if the DCM is not the ELO’s rating or reviewing officer —  how does this not affect the proper functioning of the mission? Can anyone exclude undue influence, potential favoritism or preferential treatment?  Which section chief would give a bad performance review to a junior officer who slept with the section chief’s own reviewing officer? Even if not widely known outside the Foreign Service, can anyone make a case that this is not disgraceful or notorious?  For real life consequences when a junior officer has a “special relationship” and “unrestricted access” to an embassy’s front office occupant, read the walking calamity illustrated in this case FSGBNo.2004-061 (pdf).

Look … if widespread notoriety is not required to demonstrate an adverse effect on the efficiency of the Service for the lower ranks, why should it be a requirement for the upper ranks?  It’s not? Well, how else can we explain a good number of senior officials who allegedly looked the other way?

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Can’t you see I’m busy? Besides I did not/did not see anything!

 

We went and looked up the Foreign Service Grievance Board cases related extra-marital affairs or related to notoriously disgraceful conduct. Here are some quick summaries.

  • In 2011, the State Department handed down a 30-day suspension to a junior officer for “off-color and offensive emails about women he dated, which were widely disseminated” after his private email account was hacked.  State said this constituted “notoriously disgraceful conduct.” (pdf)
  • Another case in 2011 involves an FSO who was told by the State Department: “Given the nature of Foreign Service life, you are aware that you are on duty 24/7. These multiple extramarital affairs involving sexual relations with an estimated 13 women during two separate assignments overseas without your spouse’s knowledge show poor judgment for a Foreign Service Officer.” (pdf) (note: two separate assignments could mean 4-6 years; untenured tours at 2 years, tenured tours typically at 3 years).
  • A Diplomatic Security (DS) Special Agent was suspended for three days for Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct arising from a domestic violence incident with his spouse. (pdf)
  • A married FP-04 Information Management Specialist (IMS), received a 20-day suspension, subsequently reduced to 10 days, for improper personal conduct and failure to follow regulations. The employee served at a critical threat post, and admitted having an extramarital relationship with a local embassy employee as well as engaging in sexual relations with two “massage techs.” (pdf)
  • An untenured FP-04 Diplomatic Security (DS) agent was disciplined for poor judgment and improper personal conduct. The employee brought a  woman to his hotel room and engaged in sex with her. Although the employee voluntarily disclosed the incident and asserted that the woman was not a prostitute, the Department contends that the incident at a minimum gave the appearance of engaging in prostitution and as such violated 3 FAM 4139.14 or Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct. (pdf)
  • A married FS-02 Information Management Officer (IMO) with seventeen years in the Department, with numerous awards and no disciplinary record, was found in his personal vehicle that was parked in an isolated area, and in a dazed condition with injuries suggesting he had been assaulted. He stated that during the prior night he had picked up a woman unknown to him, shared wine with her while driving, pulled over to the side of the road and then had no recollection of what followed, presumably because she had introduced a substance into his drink. During the ensuing investigation, the employee revealed he had picked up four or five women on previous occasions over a four-month period and had sex with them without the knowledge of his wife.  As a result, the Department proposed a ten-day suspension based on the charges of Poor Judgment and Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct. (pdf)
  • An FP-04 Diplomatic Security (DS) agent was given a five-day suspension without pay on the charge of Improper Personal Conduct. The charge is based on an incident in a criterion country in which employee (an unmarried person) engaged in consensual sex with a local woman and gave her $60.00 after the sexual activity had concluded. There was no evidence that the woman was a prostitute and there were no witnesses to their encounter. The employee self-reported the incident immediately to his supervisors, who took no disciplinary action. Eighteen months later, the Department opened an investigation and eventually suspended the employee. The deciding official concluded that employee’s conduct had violated two regulations governing behavior subject to discipline: 3 FAM 4139.1 (Sexual Activity) and 3 FAM 4139.14 (Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct). (pdf)

So —

We have so far been unable to locate FSGB cases of “notoriously disgraceful conduct” involving senior Foreign Service officials; certainly nothing at the DCM or COM level. It could be that 1) our search function is broken; 2) the folks are so risk-aversed and discreet that there are no cases involving a single one of them, or 3) potential such cases were swept under the rug, nothing makes it to the public records of the Foreign Service Grievance Board.

Which.Is.It? Will accept breadcrumbs …

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