Political Death at Your Own Hands – Text Messages, Emails and Metadata

Kevin O'Toole, former senator from the 40th Legislative District, warns legislators to learn from the lessons of former Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, who was indicted for misuse of public funds and aids for personal gain.

Politics, by its very nature, is all too often a fickle and fleeting proposition. While there are many upsides to longevity in our business, there is a single pure truth that staying in one place, in one position, in one office too long has deadly consequences. The trick to being seen as the political Zen master is to move on and have an end game that is by your design, and not the result of some ill-advised move or some incredible stupidity that you thrust upon yourself. 

It is well established that you could lose your very next election by being guilty of just one of the following offenses: anemic fundraising, uneven constituent services, being politically tone deaf, unresponsive to the electorate, or just being plain old dumb. I will add and highlight one more underrated way to submarine a once promising political future – negligence when handling your texts, emails and Metadata. 

TEXTS: I do not need to go into too much detail about the possible fallout of text messages gone wild. Just look to the interesting race in Ohio District 72 where the incumbent, Rick Perales, is facing off in a primary against Jocelyn Smith. Why is this interesting? The allegation is that the challenger first met the incumbent as her elected official when she was a constituent in need, then later developed in to a little more, including intimate texts messages, photos and a physical relationship – all shared via texts. Enough said.  Nationally, we have witnessed some magnificently spectacular political flameouts, courtesy of mishandling or abuse of texts or photos on one’s phone. Former Congressmen Anthony Weiner and Chris Lee come to mind as two individuals who seemingly possessed this death wish to be caught doing criminal or nefarious things. Wish granted. 

You can never hear too many times that text messages are forever, and in the political world forever is a very long time. A friend, ally, subordinate or friendly colleague today can (and often is) an enemy, boss, or even the opposition in the near or not too distant future. In today’s politics, texts messages are often saved as a screen shot, forwarded and preserved for a variety of reasons; some for a gentle reminder later, some for safe keeping and most times for leverage. It might be easy to explain the “true meaning” of a text in the moment, but let’s be honest with ourselves, trying to explain it months later without proper context usually ends badly.  

In short: Like diamonds, text messages are forever!  

EMAILS: The same admonishment and reminder for text messages holds doubly true for emails. Servers and the Cloud provide an abundance of storage for preservation of emails, which sometimes read as if you have no filter on your private and mischievous self. You might want to think twice before you click send on a blistering missive that will probably come back to you, and for God’s sake DO NOT hit reply all!  

METADATA – What is it? Data about data I’m told is the layman’s definition. I fully expect an uptick in Wikipedia searches for the definition of Metadata.  

Read carefully, every email sent has data embedded within the actual email. When mined properly the unseen data can tell a story that is wildly different than what is presented in the viewed text. My law partner, Tom Scrivo, is recognized nationally as an expert on Metadata (not a commercial) and was appointed by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner to serve as Vice Chair of Supreme Court’s Working Group on Metadata. This Group examined and made recommendations to guide lawyers on the land mines that confront us in electronic communication. Information is embedded in documents, emails, photographs, videos, voicemail messages, text messages and any other electronic data that can tell a story much different than the written words seen.  Just ask Google, the DNC, and Merck about the pitfalls of Metadata. In one example, the DNC tried to pawn off, as a document from years prior, some purportedly negative information about Sam Alito during his confirmation proceeding. The trouble was, through mining Metadata, it was revealed that this document was newly created by the DNC – an obviously embarrassing result for his opponents. 

People say it’s tough to be an elected official in this day and age of easily accessible technology and they are right. But the question is why would you make it harder on yourself? Watch what you “say” in your written communications (I left out voicemails and phone calls being recorded because well, really? You can’t be that dumb).  

Political death can easily come to your doorstep. Don’t let ignorance, stupidity or “Gary Hart” like hubris expedite it.  

Chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Kevin O’Toole is the former LD40 Senator.

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