Obama administration officials are grappling with how to handle federal employees who have been using Ashley Madison, an online forum for cheating spouses with the motto: "Life is short. Have an affair."
Employees at energy and environmental agencies including the Interior Department, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Tennessee Valley Authority are among those who used government email addresses when paying to access the site, according to a review of leaked data by Greenwire.
The Ashley Madison website has been in the headlines recently since hackers divulged names and personal information of millions of users. Leaked data and reports revealing that federal workers accessed the site with their work emails or while on the job have spurred government agencies to investigate and could trigger beefed-up scrutiny from Capitol Hill, where badly behaving workers have become popular targets.
At agencies where employee misconduct has already come under fire, this news "just piles up the kerosene on top," said Earl Devaney, the now-retired economic stimulus watchdog who spent decades in top government oversight posts.
According to the Greenwire review, employees from the U.S. Geological Survey, FERC, TVA, the Architect of the Capitol, the Transportation Department, the General Services Administration, the Justice Department and NASA used government email accounts to pay for the site.
Employees from federal agencies including the State Department, DOT, and House and Senate offices were found to have accessed the site from their offices.
The Associated Press reported last week that hundreds of federal workers — including employees in the White House, the Energy Department and other agencies — were using the site from their offices (Greenwire, Aug. 21).
Federal workers may not have violated agency rules by accessing the website from their offices. According to Devaney, who retired from the government in late 2011, agencies have policies governing personal use of government computers. It’s usually seen as acceptable for employees to check their bank accounts or purchase something on the Internet during their lunch hour, he said, while watching pornography on the job is expressly forbidden at most — if not all — agencies.
However, Devaney said, the Ashley Madison site might present a novel issue for agencies to address. "I think this might be new. Most of the rules have been written to address viewing pornography," he said. The term "’cheating site’ probably doesn’t occur in any policy in America yet — yet."
Officials at several energy and environmental agencies pledged to look into whether workers had broken any rules.
DOE spokesman Eben Burnham-Snyder said in a statement, "Any questions about an employee’s use of their DOE email address or other government asset is a personnel matter and will be handled internally. We take extremely seriously the obligations of DOE employees to use government assets appropriately and will carefully review any allegations that they were misused."
An Interior Department official sent a nearly identically worded statement about that agency’s plans to look into the matter.
FERC spokeswoman Mary O’Driscoll said in an email that the agency’s "regulations regarding the use of government computers on personal time is consistent with federal regs/rules, which typically allow de minimis personal use of office resources such as phones and email."
And TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said that the federally owned energy corporation "has strict policies governing the appropriate use of computers and information resources" and that "violators are subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination."
Hopson added, "Questionable websites are routinely blocked, including the website in question."
The public release of information about Ashley Madison users is "pretty embarrassing, and that would have a chilling effect, I would think," Devaney said.
It "makes a bigger splash" that government workers are accessing the site than it would for their private-sector counterparts, Devaney said. But he said his experience has shown that federal employees usually don’t engage in bad behavior any more than those who work outside of government.
"People exercise bad judgment no matter what they do," he said.