As the scandal surrounding CIA Director David Petraeus continues to unfold, it's worth taking the opportunity to think through some lessons it can teach lawyers.
On Friday, Petraeus resigned. An article in The New York Times quotes Petraeus’ written statement: “After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair. . . . Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours. This afternoon, the president graciously accepted my resignation.”
I am sure more will be forthcoming. For now, three thoughts.
First, I have worked with companies facing a slightly different issue: a manager having an affair with an employee. (Here, according to news reports, it was not an employee but the co-author of a biography of Petraeus, Paula Broadwell.) A question lawyers should consider: Does the manager deserve a second chance? It’s human nature to want to provide one, because most people would want one if they messed up. But there are exceptions. Did the executive violate a rule or a norm of conduct to which he expected others to adhere? With Petraeus, the answer is yes. The Times article notes that the intelligence community frowns on extramarital affairs because of the possibility of the employee being blackmailed for information.
Second, I also work with executives asked to resign because of a relationship. Yes, there is the legal side of the issue: employment contracts, definitions of “moral turpitude” as a reason for termination, whether the termination is for cause or without cause. But there is a human side, as well. One executive I worked with was truly contrite for his action, saying over and over that he could not believe what he put his wife through. I told him that we all fall short, each and every one of us. That’s a given. But what truly matters is how we respond to falling short. That ultimately defines him as a person, not the original sin.
Third, I give Petraeus’ apology an A+. There were no weasel words, no lawyer-like equivocations, no nuanced meanings, no contingent sentences (“If I hurt anyone I am sorry. . . .”), just a simple, declarative sentiment: I did wrong. It’s a lesson for other execs. And speaking of simple, declarative sentences, I was raised as a Catholic and occasionally re-read The Act of Contrition: “I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.”