Information is still coming in about the people and technology devices connected to the Ashley Madison website, which promotes extramarital affairs. But several former staffers and current public relations professionals think a link from a House office to the site could be a job-ending offense, especially if the member of Congress feels the negative press will go over poorly with constituents.
“Putting the member of Congress and the office in a bad position with voters back home because of bad personal choices is definitely a fire-able offense,” said Ron Bonjean, a former chief of staff to the Senate Republican Conference and communications director for former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and now a partner with Rokk Solutions.
“It all depends on the member, the leadership of the office, and their attitude towards what transpired,” said Gary Meltz, a former Democratic Hill staffer who now runs his own crisis communications firm, Meltz Communications. “If the member wants to cut the employee some slack, they can.”
Several current Hill staffers declined to be interviewed for this article, preferring to keep their names as far from the scandal as possible. Though many offices allow for some personal use of office supplies including computers, the salacious nature of Ashley Madison might be one step too far.
Many Capitol Hill jobs are “at will" employees, so it’s within the office's right to terminate for just about any reason, said Rodell Mollineau, a former Democratic Senate leadership staffer and also a partner at Rokk Solutions. Mollineau said the outcome might depend on the staffer’s position, “A low-level staffer might get a pass while a highly recognizable or prominent staff member would get fired for reflecting poorly on the office.”
Mollineau says if it happened on a personal email account on someone's own time and computer, the staffer would likely be spared. But he added, "Any office has some responsibility to find out if the staffer actually used the site versus their email being stolen. We are talking about people's professional and personal reputations here."
For those offices caught in the crosshairs, Meltz recommends a low-key approach to fielding press requests. Should the office decide to fire the employee, release a short statement calling the actions “inappropriate.” If the office retains the employee, cite the issue as a “personnel matter” that will be dealt with internally.
Bonjean agrees that swift action should be taken “to show a zero tolerance policy with unethical behavior.”
“Either way, say nothing more and hope the boring statement reduces the salaciousness of the story,” said Meltz.
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