E-mailers beware: 'Private' messages may be anything but
Send button can lead to humiliation, loss of a job, even a prison sentence
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and his wife, Catherine, today walk outside City Hall, where the couple denounced rumors of infidelity spread by an aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (Sun photo by Christopher T. Assaf / February 9, 2005)
- 1982: Worked for National Conservative Political Action Committee.
- 1985: Worked on unsuccessful lieutenant governor's campaign of Richard Viguerie, a conservative, in Va.
- 1992: Ran to become Republican delegate to national convention. Would have represented Pat Buchanan.
- 1995-2003: Worked in Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s 2nd District congressional office in Lutherville. Was district representative/legislative assistant, paid $46,600 a year.
- Jan. 15, 2003: Appointed as an executive aide in the governor's office. State officials said he never officially worked for either the Human Resources or Juvenile Services department but could have been detailed to those agencies.
- June 2, 2004: Moved to Maryland Insurance Administration. Earned $72,453 as director of communications.
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Consider what Tom Ryan, an information technology director, discovered when he downloaded software to analyze a week's worth of employee e-mail at his Southern California high-tech firm.
He found employees swapping pornography. Employees forwarding racist jokes. Employees running their private businesses on company time and resources.
Worst of all, "we found that one of our managers in a position of responsibility sent out a resume which detailed work he had done on top-secret, highly competitive intellectual property projects we were working on," said Ryan, who asked that his company not be identified for confidentiality reasons.
"It took all of us in the room to restrain our CEO from walking out the door to fire this person right then and there.
"It absolutely terrified us what goes on every day."
E-mail, as former state employee Joseph F. Steffen Jr. is learning as reporters comb through his thousands of messages, is hardly the private exchange that it seems to be.
Steffen - the aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. who was forced to resign for spreading Internet rumors about Mayor Martin O'Malley - has joined the growing ranks of e-mailers whose presumably private messages have been made public.
Last week, Boeing Co. Chief Executive Officer Harry Stonecipher was booted from his job after an anonymous tipster notified board executives of racy e-mails that the chief executive was sending his lover at the company.
What is it about e-mailing that leads so many down the same wayward path?
Its irresistibility, said Kenneth Morgen, president of the Baltimore Psychological Association, lies in its curious combination of physical distance and emotional immediacy.
"The person they are writing is not in front of them," Morgen said, but at the same time the correspondence is delivered and often read within minutes.
Alas, sometimes the reader is not the intended recipient.
"Oh my God, it's the worst thing you can do," said Dustin Plantholt, an employee benefits adviser in Towson. "I sent an e-mail to a good friend of mine at work asking her to go out for drinks, and I accidentally sent it to a client in Baltimore. The client sent me an e-mail back that said, 'I'm married.'"
Plantholt's mortification was fairly tame as the ramifications of errant e-mails go.
Remember "Brad the Cad"? He was the London lawyer who received a steamy "thanks-for-last-night" e-mail from a woman, which he proudly forwarded to a few friends, who forwarded it to their friends. The rest is Internet history.
Beyond personal humiliation, e-mail increasingly figures into legal and criminal cases. Baltimore-based Mercantile Bankshares Corp. did not hesitate to introduce into evidence dozens of e-mails written by former executive John J. Pileggi, who filed a $240 million lawsuit against the company for firing him.
In its countersuit, Mercantile mined two years' worth of Pileggi's e-mails disparaging his boss and colleagues, and detailing an extramarital affair with a woman whom he had helped land a job at the bank.
In September, Frank P. Quattrone, an investment banker to the 1990s technology boom, received an 18-month prison sentence for obstructing justice. He had sent an e-mail message to colleagues urging them to "clean up" their computer files during a federal investigation.