What Happens Behind the Scenes of a Senate Sex Scandal?

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Feb. 6 2013 6:01 PM

So Your Boss Is Implicated in a Sex Scandal

Pity the poor Senate staffers when chaos descends on Capitol Hill.

US Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) speaks during a press conference.
Sen. Robert Menendez speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in January.

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Democrat or Republican, all Capitol Hill staffers agree on one thing: It’s terrifying to see your boss’s name in the same sentence with the words “underage Dominican Republic prostitutes.”

There’s just no upside there.

In this case, we’re talking about Sen. Robert Menendez, the senior Democrat from New Jersey. Menendez is no stranger to scandal. Like many single politicians, and even some who are married, rumors of sexual indiscretions have swirled for a while among his staff. In the media, most papers are now delicately mentioning that he is the former political boss of Hudson County, an area of Jersey known for its “rough and tumble” politics. (For those new to Jersey politics, “rough and tumble” is cocktail-hour code for corrupt.)

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So far the Menendez flap is following a well-trod path of politicians accused of shedding clothing and common sense: sex allegations that at first blush seem outrageous, followed by denials from the press secretary and other senior staff; outraged calls by “nonpartisan” government groups for punishment or resignation; and a growing media push for either an admission or categorical refutation.

Forgotten in all the back and forth are the dozens of staffers working behind the scenes to prop up their boss and make him look politically viable during the storm. For these sorry souls, the experience—the crisis—is professionally and personally consuming.

Congressional staffers are not like most of us. They become personally attached to their bosses in ways that few regular office workers understand. If dog owners actually do resemble their pets, then staffers take it one step further, sometimes morphing into caricatures of their employer, mimicking everything from speech patterns to habits of thought.

But when scandal hits a congressional office, staffers suddenly realize they really aren’t like the boss at all. They remain loyal to the office, but if the man behind the desk starts looking guilty or evasive, things can get stressful and alarming in the office pretty quickly. It’s not just hurt feelings—staffers’ careers can end if they hang onto a sinking ship for too long.

I’m not in the Menendez office, but I spent more than three years working in the Senate, and I’m now working on a book about staff on Capitol Hill and have interviewed nearly 100 of them. Here’s what they say it feels like when the scandal hits.

Expect to be the last to know. Just about every staffer on the Hill has a small desk TV tuned to Fox News or MSNBC. When the scandal makes landfall, the only way staff know what’s happening is by watching the news.

People who don’t work in Congress often think staffers have the inside line on the lurid details or what’s coming next. In fact, no senator invites his staff into his personal office for a group huddle to discuss his alleged sex problems. When a scandal hits, members almost universally go into lockdown.

Only the inner circle, such as the chief of staff or a longtime adviser, is tapped for advice, whether to plan a PR strategy or the mechanics of a graceful exit. The rest of the staff are reading the generic talking points they’ve been handed (which say nothing and have already been reported), scanning Google for new details, and watching TV for the latest gossip. At no point is there a moment of clarity, unless it’s too late to matter.

Answering the phones just got worse. There is no job on Capitol Hill as awful as answering the phones. Front-office staffers usually start right out of college taking calls, greeting guests, and fielding walk-ins. On any given day, they handle dozens of calls from voters whose lives revolve around watching cable news and then phoning Congress to scream about the downfall of America.

With a sex scandal, however, your daily phone battles suddenly go nuclear. Not just the number but the intensity of the calls will reach mushroom-cloud levels. Expect to be cursed out more often by voters who formerly questioned if you are an “idiot.” Now you’ve got someone on the line yelling that he or she always knew your boss was a “corrupt fucking asshole!” And then there are the reporters with cameras camped outside the front office, pointlessly waiting to get a quick shot of the senator. It’s amazing that the TV people still haven’t learned that every senator has a secret, unmarked exit one floor above or below the main office.

Imagine you’re six months out of college, working a job that pays very little and carrying a pile of student debt. Now you’re scared you might lose your job if your boss is asked to resign, making you unable to pay rent on that crappy room you found in a group house in Petworth. This is the reality for the lower tier of people working for Menendez. The only consolation is that they’re not alone. The scandal staff fraternity has been around as long as Congress has had staff.

Resumes are circulating. Menendez staffers are still working on bills. They’re still attending meetings with federal agencies. They’re still taking those phone calls. But some of them—the smart ones at least—are quietly putting out feelers, making careful inquiries about openings with other members. They need to maintain a front of absolute trust in the guy at the top, but if Menendez is following the pattern, he’s probably not telling them anything.

Trust nobody, especially people in your own party. A senator or representative is never weaker than when his alleged sexual improprieties are being batted about on cable news. In some cases, this is the perfect opportunity for his colleagues to stab him in the back. That committee chair he holds? The guy one rung below in the pecking order would love that seat. He may have already made some quiet inquires with party leaders asking who might be at the top of the list for a replacement.

Then there are the petty party chieftains back home, licking their chops for a shot at a seat that wasn’t supposed to open up for years. Some of the only people who don’t see an upside to this mess are staffers from the opposite party whose own bosses work with the soon-to-be-toppled lawmaker on specific issues. At a human level, they have nothing to gain from the scandal—especially if it’s a safe seat that won’t change party hands. They just feel sorry for their counterparts, and their bosses are about to lose a rare ally from across the aisle. Scandal makes for strange bedfellows.

Other staffers feel sympathy. But they are also laughing. When scandal hits, most other staff feel a natural sympathy for what their colleagues are going through. Everyone knows they are just one embarrassing indiscretion away from the same nightmare. Still, people like to have a little fun. This is sex we’re talking about, so people naturally can’t help but gawk and giggle.

A few years back, then-Sen. John Ensign got hit with his own sex scandal. You might remember Ensign from the time his name was being floated for a possible run for the White House because he “looked presidential.” That ended when the media reported that his office duties included sleeping with a member of his staff, who was also a close family friend, best friend to his wife, and married to another person in his office who was also a friend of the family.

The story broke on a Tuesday in June 2009. I watched a colleague call Ensign’s front desk that afternoon. No answer. When he called back a few hours later, Ensign’s voice mail had been flooded and wasn’t taking any more messages. I walked by Ensign’s office and found the doors locked. The whole office had shut down.

Two days later, I was back at my colleague’s desk as he placed another call to Ensign’s front office. Several staffers gathered around, all cracking up as we imagined the poor sap on the other end of the line.

“Hello? Is everything OK?” my colleague asked, trying to keep his composure. “I’ve been trying to get a hold of you guys for several days.” Pause. “Nobody was answering the phones. What’s going on?”

Sens. Ensign and Larry Craig were felled by sex scandals, but Sen. David Vitter survived his. What staff working for Menendez are looking out for now is any sign that the Democratic Senate leadership is abandoning their boss, tossing him overboard for the good of the party. That or a prosecutor in some jurisdiction announcing subpoenas.

At that point, the only person who will be talking for the senator will be his attorney.

Paul D. Thacker is a former Senate investigator. He is a fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, where he is working on a book about the lives of congressional staffers. Follow him on Twitter.

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