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Via FSGB Case No. 2020-009 | Interim Decision | February 4, 2021
Held –The Department of State (“Department) met its burden of proving that grievant committed one specification of Improper Personal Conduct, and one charge of Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct. The Department also established that the conduct showed poor judgment and lack of discretion, and that such misconduct had an impact upon the efficiency of the Service. The Department did not meet its burden of proving the charge of Inappropriate Comments and one specification of Improper Personal Conduct. The case was remanded to the Department to re- determine an appropriate consequence in light of the Board’s findings.
Case Summary – Grievant, a married Senior Foreign Service officer, while serving as Management Counselor at the U.S. Embassy REDACTED, was accused of sexual harassment based on inappropriate statements he reportedly made to female colleagues and conduct considered professionally improper. Grievant also appeared in a video published on a local website showing grievant and a local national woman seated together in the driver’s seat of a vehicle on a public road. The website article identified grievant as a foreign diplomat and commented on foreign diplomats and young host country women. Grievant later admitted to having an extramarital affair with the woman in the video, who was employed as a nanny by one of grievant’s subordinates. Grievant requested a voluntary curtailment because of the negative response by members of the embassy community concerning the video and to attend to a family illness.
The Department’s Office of Civil Rights (S/OCR) investigated the sexual harassment allegations and forwarded its report to the Bureau of Human Resources (HR). Based on the findings of the S/OCR and after consideration of a description of the video showing grievant with the foreign national woman in the car, the Department proposed to suspend grievant for eight days without pay as discipline for Inappropriate Comments (three specifications), Improper Personal Conduct (two specifications), and Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct.
Grievant challenged the suspension proposal, however, it was sustained by the Department. After a grievance was denied, grievant appealed to the Foreign Service Grievance Board that found that the Department met its burden of proving that grievant committed one of two acts of Improper Personal Conduct and he engaged in Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct. The Board remanded the case to the Department for reconsideration of the proposed discipline in light of the Board’s decision.
Charge 3: Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct
The Department contends that grievant’s conduct, captured in the video which showed a young woman sitting in front of grievant in the driver’s seat while driving a car, had a negative impact upon mission morale. The Department noted that this video appeared on a popular local website and the existence of the video and its content were widely known within the mission. Grievant also admitted that he was having an extramarital affair with the woman who appeared with him in the video who was employed as a nanny for the family of one of grievant’s subordinates in the mission. The Department cites a statement by the CLO that both grievant’s family and the post family that employed the woman who appeared in the video were deeply affected. Grievant claims that his wife was aware of the relationship and argues that the video did not explicitly show his involvement in a sexual relationship. Nonetheless, the Department concluded that the video exposed the close relationship grievant was engaged in with the nanny of his subordinate, thereby embarrassing his colleagues, his family, and the mission.
With respect to the Charge of Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct, the Department notes that grievant admitted to having an extramarital affair with the woman in the video and the S/OCR report specifically corroborated that the video was publicized in the media in the host country. The Department argues that the physical closeness exhibited between grievant and the woman in the video, the nanny of one of his subordinates, and grievant’s admission that he was engaged in an affair with the woman, demonstrated his failure to maintain the high standard of conduct required of Foreign Service employees representing the U.S. abroad. The Department also points out that all new Foreign Service employees are briefed about their role representing the U.S. government abroad and the expectation that each maintain the highest standard of conduct demonstrating integrity, reliability and prudence whether at work or during their non- work hours. Further, the publication of the video resulted in embarrassment to others in the mission and disrupted grievant’s effectiveness as Management Counselor because his colleagues and supervisees refused to work with him. In fact, the Department points out that the publication of the video partially motivated grievant to request voluntary curtailment from post, thereby detrimentally affecting management operations at post.
Grievant maintains that the disciplinary action against him is unwarranted and that the statements upon which the charges and specifications are based are factually inaccurate and mischaracterized. He argues that the Department cannot meet its burden to establish that he engaged in Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct (Charge 3). Moreover, grievant argues that the proposed discipline is excessive for the alleged offenses, that the DO did not give adequate weight to several mitigating factors in his case, and that the penalty, therefore, is unreasonable.
Grievant maintains that the Department cannot meet its burden of proving that he engaged in Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct, as defined in the regulation. Grievant acknowledges that he did have an extramarital affair but maintains that it was discreet, not conducted publicly, not disgraceful but, instead, it was a meaningful relationship.
The FAM definition of notoriously disgraceful conduct is normative; that is, it is defined by the reaction to the conduct. In the instant matter, grievant is charged with engaging in an extra-marital affair with a local national woman, which was publicized by inference in a video on local media. Thus, grievant’s conduct is notoriously disgraceful because, were it widely known, it would embarrass or discredit him, the embassy, and the United States, or would subject them to censure or opprobrium. Grievant’s argument that the video was posted to a non- mainstream sensationalist website is unavailing, as the Department does not need to prove that grievant’s extramarital affair was in fact widely known or published by a widely-accessed medium, only that, if known, it would cause the concerns described in the regulation. In fact, though, the Department describes the internet website where the video was posted as popular and the record shows that it was sufficiently well-known that the embassy community quickly saw it, identified grievant and the nanny, and reacted negatively. Judging from the strong negative reaction, described by the Deputy Chief of Mission as “universal revulsion and anger,” we are satisfied that if evidence of the affair and the circumstances were widely known in the host country, a socially conservative country, the embassy and the United States would have been embarrassed and likely censured.
According to the S/OCR investigator, interviews with the Management staff revealed that the disclosure of the video made grievant’s “relationship with his subordinates irreparably bad [and] … brought forth a torrent of further negative reporting from across the mission about [grievant’s] behavior and his interpersonal skills.” Agency-Level Grievance Decision at 15. In the aftermath of the release of the video, grievant agreed to work from home and discontinued any contact with his subordinates or others at the embassy. Grievant also admitted that he ultimately voluntarily curtailed from post in part due to release of the video, even though the official rationale was listed as his mother’s health situation. The embassy had the unanticipated absence of a key senior official who supervised a large staff and provided administrative services to 15 U.S. government agencies. It is clear to the Board that the evidence supports the Department’s conclusion that grievant’s appearance in the video and his extramarital affair with a subordinate’s nanny led to his discredit as a senior embassy official within the mission and possibly in the wider community; adversely affected the embassy’s ability to carry out its responsibilities when grievant could no longer perform his job.