Cautionary Tales: Don’t Assume Your Emails Will Remain Private

By Pamela J. Bethel

Anyone who is pursuing or defending white-collar criminals these days knows that the essence of any case is usually what is found in the defendants’ emails.

It’s a pretty good assumption that anything you say in an email will eventually be found out — and that therefore before writing an email you should think about what it might look like on the front page of the Washington Post or in a count of an indictment.

This is certainly true of emails that appear to reveal criminal conspiracies.

For example, the former leaders of the defunct law firm Dewey LeBoeuf, who were charged on March 6 by New York state prosecutors with a fraudulent scheme to cook the firm’s books and mislead its lenders, had the habit of putting all sorts of incriminating things into emails. They spoke openly about “fake income,” “accounting tricks,” and their ability to fool the firm’s “clueless auditor.” One of them even used the phrase “cooking the books” to describe what they were doing to mislead the firm’s lenders and creditors.

In a case with a quite different posture, New Jersey state legislators have asked Bridget Kelly, the former deputy chief of staff for Gov. Chris Christie, and Bill Stepien, the two-time campaign manager for Mr. Christie, to turn over all emails, text messages and other documents related to lane closings on the George Washington Bridge. Here there have been no indictments, and it is quite possible that nothing illegal occurred. But the emails could be incriminating at worst and embarrassing at least.

Clearly, no one should engage in fraud or other white-collar offenses. But the lesson is broader than that. Even if your behavior is ordinary business conduct and not a crime, don’t express it in ways that will concern prosecutors and damage your reputation.

It’s not just emails, either: What about text messages, Facebook posts, tweets, and other statements? Assume that what you say will become public.

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