'Send' key can lead to scandal

If ever there was a reminder to be cautious with e-mails, it came this week as romantic missives from South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford to his Argentine lover surfaced in the national press.

Sanford, a conservative Republican who disappeared for several days to rendezvous with his lover in Argentina, returned to the United States on Wednesday to find out his tryst had been exposed in the media, along with months' worth of steamy electronic exchanges between the couple.

"I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificently gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curves of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself . . . in the faded glow of night's light," one of Sanford's messages read. "But hey, that would be going into sexual details."

The State, a South Carolina newspaper which first published the correspondence, said it received the e-mails anonymously as early as December of last year. They appeared to come from a personal e-mail account belonging to Sanford rather than a government-related account, according to the paper.

Sanford is now battling for his job as some constituents call for his resignation.

How the anonymous source obtained the e-mails and whether that source violated any laws in doing so isn't clear. What is clear, experts said, is that anyone using e-mail, text messages and other forms of electronic communication that can zip around the globe in seconds should simply assume that the whole world is reading.

"Never intermingle professional stuff and personal stuff," said Elizabeth Charnock, chief executive of electronic data analysis company Cataphora Inc., based in Redwood City, Calif.

Sanford is hardly the first public figure to become tangled in his own e-mails.

Frank Quattrone's career at Credit Suisse First Boston as a celebrated investment banker was derailed in 2003, in part by e-mails in which he allegedly suggested that his colleagues should destroy evidence. Quattrone was then charged with obstructing justice and witness tampering. His conviction in federal court was later reversed and all charges dismissed.

E-mails figure prominently in the fraud and insider-trading lawsuit filed this month by the Securities and Exchange Commission against Angelo Mozilo, the former chief executive of Countrywide Financial Corp. The suit accuses Mozilo of hiding the troubled mortgage lender's true financial condition from shareholders even as he lambasted his own company's loan products as "toxic" and "poison" in e-mails to other executives.

Mozilo has denied the allegations.

In this electronic age, companies are monitoring their workers' e-mails with a prevalence that far surpasses that of wiretapping phone calls. And most experts say the high-tech snooping is on the rise.

Nearly 30% of employers have fired employees for e-mail misuse, with reasons including inappropriate language, excessive personal use and breach of confidentiality, according to a 2007 survey from the American Management Assn. and consulting firm EPolicy Institute.

Just after landing a job abroad in 2001, an employee of a Washington-based investment firm sent an e-mail to friends through his work account about his plans to sleep his way through the local female population. He also bragged about bankers who "cater to my every whim."

He was forced to resign when the e-mail went viral.

Companies increasingly are trying to protect themselves from wrongful termination lawsuits by monitoring mundane communications, Charnock said. Her company often does e-discovery work.

Businesses often employ software that flags e-mails with phrases such as "delete this e-mail," "I could get in trouble for telling you this" and "just between you and me," she said.

"I'm always surprised how many people in an e-mail about a contract negotiation will talk about how they have the hots for a co-worker even if they're married," Charnock said.

Employees should rarely expect privacy with a work e-mail account, said Ron S. Brand, a partner with employment law firm Fisher & Phillips. Courts tend to side with employers, many of whom now have strict policies governing e-mail use and stating their ownership of e-mailed content, Brand said.

Even e-mails sent from personal accounts during personal time can be subpoenaed if they contain information about an employer, experts said.

"But this is still a developing area of the law, and there are so many permutations," Brand said. "A lot of employers take the pragmatic view that it's virtually impossible to monitor every employee's activities."

Still, experts advise employees to never send e-mails at work or through their company accounts that they wouldn't want publicized. Workers should pretend that a supervisor is reading every message.

An e-mail informing a spouse when you'll be home is easily forgiven, most agree. But using the office server to download music or hunt for jobs is asking for trouble. The "reply to all" button is also dangerous.

And contrary to popular belief, deleting an e-mail isn't like shredding a damning paper letter, experts said. The messages can stick around in company archives for years.

"Most people think of e-mails as a conversation, not realizing that they're writing a document that's just as legal as a memo or a letter," said Sandra Chrystal, director of the Center for Management Communication at USC. "That e-mail is not confidential."

E-mail isn't the only minefield. People also should be wary of how they text, instant message and even post to forums.

Just ask former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Thousands of text messages written on a city-owned BlackBerry to his chief of staff, Christine Beatty -- many of them steamy -- were revealed by the Detroit Free Press last year, after both had denied a personal relationship under oath. The text messages also revealed that the pair had lied about their involvement in a police official's firing.

Kilpatrick pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and agreed to pay $1 million in restitution to the city. He was released from jail in February after serving 99 days.

At one point during the affair, fearing that Kilpatrick's bodyguards knew she had spent the night in his hotel room, Beatty texted: "So we are officially busted!"

Kilpatrick responded: "Damn that. Never busted. Busted is what you see!"

He, and others, might want to rethink that.

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tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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