The most remarkable thing about the George Washington Bridge scandal currently roiling the administration of New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie is just how unremarkable it is for powerful people to be caught out in the open with a trail of troublesome digital correspondence. It’s been a decade since the federal regulators took 1.6 million embarrassing and incriminating inner-office e-mails among Enron executives and shared them with the world—and yet politicians, corporate leaders, and others in power seem as naive as ever about just how secure their e-mail accounts and text messages really are. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, and oh my God, how’d you get into my inbox?
To put Bridgegate’s lack of uniqueness in perspective, let’s take a look back at some of the worst of the recent scandals involving oversharing e-mail and texts. We don’t have room to list them all—yes, it really does happen that often—but here are six of our favorites.
1. The U.S. Navy
When TV news reporter Scott MacFarlane requested details from the U.S. Navy about the September 2013 Navy Yard shooting rampage, citing the Freedom of Information Act, the Navy’s public liaison, Robin Patterson, accidentally forwarded her suggestions on how to deal with the pesky journalist. “Recommend that you provide the requester with an estimate, as I can see the search and review, possible redactions, will be very costly,” Patterson wrote in an e-mail dated Jan. 2 of this year. “This may encourage the requester to ‘narrow the scope.’ Again another ‘fishing expedition’—just because they are media doesn’t mean that the memos would shed light on specific government activities.” MacFalane wasted no time sharing the e-mail, posting it on his Twitter account with the line, “EPIC FAILURE.”
2. RBS Traders
In early February 2013, the Royal Bank of Scotland admitted that its traders had been rigging Libor rates, an interest rate index used to set borrowing costs. It didn’t have much choice but to fess up, given that its traders had left a staggering (and often hilarious) e-mail trail. “It’s just amazing how Libor fixing can make you that much money,” one RBS trader openly bragged in a 2007 message. “It is a cartel now in London.” Another trader compared himself with a “whore’s drawers,” referring to how often he made requests for interest rates to go up and down. In 2008, just months after a RBS bailout worth billions, a trader offered to trade “sushi rolls from yesterday” in exchange for a lower submission of Libor, and another claimed he would “make love” with a colleague as payback for rate fixing.
3. Microsoft Execs
It’s one thing if customers complain about your product; it’s quite another if your own upper-level executives are claiming they “personally got burned.” That’s what happened in 2007 when Microsoft launched Windows Vista. One unsatisfied user was Mike Nash, a vice president at Microsoft who ran Windows product management and who aired his grievances in an e-mail chain with other top execs. Despite using a laptop with a “Windows Vista Capable” logo, Nash wrote, the program caused some major compatibility issues. Among the worst was that he didn’t have the right graphic chip to run Movie Maker, his favorite video-editing software. “I now have a $2,100 e-mail machine,” Nash wrote. Well at least that expensive e-mail machine couldn’t do any further damage. Oh wait ….
4. BP Officials
At first it seemed like a gesture of good faith when BP, the London-based oil company, offered $500 million in research funds for a 10-year investigation into the long-term consequences of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. But then this e-mail exchange, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, showed that their intentions weren’t quite so pure. Russell Putt, a BP environmental expert, asked in an e-mail to his co-workers: “Can we ‘direct’ GRI [Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative] funding to a specific study? What influence do we have over the vessels/equipment driving the studies vs. the questions?” The “air quotes” are so sinister, you can almost hear them being dictated by Monty Burns.
5. Security Firm VPs
Scott Dennison was the vice president for special events at Contemporary Services Corp., a security firm in Los Angeles. He’s also, it turns out, more than willing to use racial epithets in his correspondence. We probably wouldn’t have known that second part if not for the charming e-mails he exchanged with John Storer, a retired military officer who worked for Dennison over four years. In one of the e-mails, leaked last September, Dennison suggested sending a new German shepherd attack dog to Denver for training. “There he will do a great deal of bite work, off-leash training and some n— eating exercises,” he wrote, before going on to call African Americans “scum suckers” and “worthless.” Storer said what everyone was thinking when asked about the e-mails by the New York Post. “The first thing I thought was: How stupid do you have to be to put this in writing?”
6. Baseball Legends
Alex Rodriguez has been called one of the greatest baseball players of his generation and possibly of all time. But it’s become more difficult to make those claims with a straight face because of those recently leaked text messages, released as part of an official investigation, between A-Rod and his Florida “doctor,” Anthony Bosch. In 556 BlackBerry text messages, Rodriguez expresses his enthusiasm for gummies, pink food, and liquid soap. Sounds like innocent fun, but according to Fredric Horowitz, the MLB’s chief arbitrator, “gummies” was just code for testosterone lozenges, “pink food” is testosterone cream, and “liquid soup” is really melted testosterone. It doesn’t help Rodriguez’s case that in one of the texts, a response to Bosch’s promise to pick up his meds, he wrote “Not meds, dude. Food.” We broke your code, dude.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Bloomberg Businessweek.)