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News 13 Investigates: Could a workplace relationship threaten your career?

The VA in a statement to News 13 acknowledged, "The individuals involved in this matter are no longer employed by the Charles George VA Medical Center." Downs was terminated from his Health Resource Center job in Kansas as a result. (Source: WLOS Staff)

A workplace affair inside the Charles George VA Medical Center spanned two states and ended with a former administrator out of a job.

Reports from the VA Office of Accountability review show the alleged sexual misconduct occurred over two years while Robert Downs served as the chief of Health Administration Services at the VA in Asheville and then the associate director at the Eastern Kansas Health Care System.

News 13 investigated the allegations and dangers that can come with romantic workplace relationships.

The Charles George VAMC is a place where thousands of Western North Carolina veterans go for health care, but, behind closed doors, few suspected a sex scandal was simmering between Downs, the married VA administrator, and a married female employee, one of Downs' subordinates. Her name is redacted, or blacked out, in the report.

While veterans picked up prescriptions and carried on day to day business, the VA Office of Accountability review found Downs and the woman had oral sex in Downs' office on more than one occasion. As veterans worked to schedule appointments, their hanky-panky continued on government servers. The two exchanged hundreds of what investigators called "inappropriate and sexually explicit messages," nude pictures and videos during work hours.

The relationship didn't slow when Downs was transferred to Kansas. In fact, he was promoted while under investigation. But a workplace romance can hurt your job, according to one workplace relationship author.

"Well, there's a thrill factor to it for some people. But it creates what we call a dual relationship. If you have a relationship with your boss and you're also having an affair with your boss, whether you're male or female, then it really gets complicated,” said Bryan Robinson, psychotherapist and author of "Chained to the Desk, A Guidebook for Workaholics."

For many employees, workplace romances aren't that taboo. Careerbuilder.com found 41 percent of workers have dated co-workers.

“If you think about it this way, you've got a pre-selected pool of people with similar interests, similar values, and they often live near each other, so it's often like a match.com in some ways. It's a great place for people to meet,” said Robinson.

While it might be positive for the couple, it can create resentment among co-workers. In the VA case, the woman was promoted while Downs was known to have input on the selection.

“It can create jealousy, it can create animosity, it really affects the moral and, in some places, it's illegal,” said Robinson.

Jonathan Yarbrough, a partner at Constangy, Brooks & Smith, said love in the workplace is a legal nightmare for employers, which is all the more reason to know the rules.

“Sexually explicit messages, love notes, things of that sort, are an absolute no-no at work, and most employers have internet and email policies these days that explicitly provide that your email is not private, it is not your email, even though it's coming from your work account," said Yarbrough.

Those emails can be, and often are, subpoenaed in divorce cases, when a workplace affair raises questions.

“They (employers) do have to comply with a valid subpoena,” Yarbrough explained.

Most people don't expect their love for a co-worker to sour, but it's a top reason for sexual harassment claims. Yarbrough recommends coming clean with the company's human resources department and creating what he calls a “love contract.”

“The relationship is put on the table and a kind of contract is developed addressing harassment and retaliation and things of that sort,” said Yarbrough.

In the VA's case, its policy is clear. The VA sets limited personal use for government equipment. It strictly prohibits viewing, storage or transmitting sexually-oriented materials and prohibits romantic/sexual relationships, even when consensual, between managers and subordinates, which Downs' and the VA employee’s relationship was, according to the report.

The six pages of analysis and conclusions are entirely redacted, but the VA in a statement to News 13 acknowledged, "The individuals involved in this matter are no longer employed by the Charles George VA Medical Center."

Downs was terminated from his Health Resource Center job in Kansas as a result.

News 13 reached out to Downs and the woman in the report. In reaching Downs he told News 13, "I made a mistake and I own up to that mistake. I am lucky that my family still supports me even though I made this mistake and I am truly lucky and blessed that they are in my corner," said Downs.

The Asheville VA leadership wants to stress, "When leadership is made aware of any misconduct, the matter is fully investigated, and swift and corrective action is taken."

News 13 made a request to the VAMC for work histories while Robert Downs and the female VA employee were employed in Asheville. The station was recently notified that information is still under review and will be addressed on or before June 7, 2017.

Here's the VA Office of Accountability Review's report:


If you have a topic you want the I-team to investigate, email us at iteam@wlos.com.

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