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Compromising a Career by E-mail

Former Representative Mark Foley is the latest high-profile example of someone whose e-mail indiscretions caught up with him

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Chalk up another victim of e-mail: Mark Foley, the former House representative who resigned amid revelations that he had sent sexually explicit e-mails and instant messages to former congressional pages—still minors. And while you can certainly argue that the boys with whom he corresponded are the chief victims, there may be more collateral damage from the case.

At least one newspaper, The Washington Times, has called for the resignation of Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House. The conservative paper's editorial, titled Resign, Mr. Speaker, says in part: "Either he was grossly negligent for not taking the red flags fully into account and ordering a swift investigation, for not even remembering the order of events leading up to last week's revelations—or he deliberately looked the other way in hopes that a brewing scandal would simply blow away."

The problem is, of course, that e-mail doesn't just "blow away." Just ask former Citigroup (C) analyst Jack Grubman, whose e-mails—including one about former Chief Executive Officer Sandy Weill helping to get Grubman's children into nursery school—contributed to an ethics crisis at the financial giant and a conflict-of-interest investigation by New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Or former Merrill Lynch (MER) analyst Henry M. Blodgett, whose e-mails showed he felt very differently about the stocks he was touting.

MESSAGES THAT LAST.

True, there are technologies that help erase the electronic trail. For example, there's VaporStream stream messaging, which the company claims is "a simple, safe, secure electronic communications system that leaves no record on any computer or server." Of course, in many cases, the whole point is to have records of communication. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act requires that companies keep such data as e-mails, instant messages (IMs), and blog posts.

Hastert may keep his job. For now, at least, President George W. Bush is supporting him, though he has said he is "dismayed and shocked" by Foley's e-mails and IMs. And it's unclear whether Foley, who has since gone into rehab, will face criminal charges. Still, the scandal is untimely at best for Republicans, coming five weeks before the midterm elections, and serves as a potent reminder of the lasting and far-reaching impact of e-mail.

For a slide show on damaging e-mails, click here.

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