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Mary Hayes Weier
February 6, 2008
4 Min Read
My, oh my, what a mess in Detroit. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick faces a financial audit, an investigation into potential perjury, maybe an investigation into criminal fraud. The evidence? Smoking text messages.For anyone not following what's going on in Detroit, it's a long and torrid story, that you can begin to read about here. Here's an abridged version: 1) Former Detroit police officers sue city, claiming the mayor fired them because their investigation of misconduct on his security staff might have uncovered the married mayor's affair with his chief of staff, Christine Beatty; 2) Jury finds in favor of police officers; 3) The mayor says he'll appeal, and then in an about-face, city quickly settles for $8.4 million; 4) The Detroit Free Press gets its hands on never-revealed transcripts of five-year-old text messages between the mayor and Beatty that proves the two were having an affair, even though they both declared under oath during the trial that they weren't romantically involved.
The Free Press recently published some of the exchanges, like this one -- CB: And, did you miss me, sexually? KK: Hell yeah! You couldn't tell. I want some more. Don't sleep! -- and tastefully declined to publish others it deemed too explicit. Another message Beatty sent also refers to the "decision that we made to fire [police officer] Gary Brown." But the text messages never appeared as evidence in last year's trial. The police officers' attorney subpoenaed SkyTel for messages sent from Beatty's city-issued paging device, but didn't get them until several weeks after the verdict. The city apparently spent years trying to block access to the text messages. Yesterday, a judge ordered the release of "secret documents" that the Free Press claims confirm the city's efforts to hide the mayor's text messages in a lawsuit settlement, and the judge raised the prospect that the alleged secretive settlement amounted to criminal fraud.
Naturally, many Detroiters are enraged that this drama has cost the cash-poor city some $9 million in legal costs. The City Council has launched an audit of the mayor's office, and the Wayne County's prosecutor has launched her own investigation following the muck raked up by the Free Press. Detroit needs this mess now like it needs another round of autoworker layoffs.
OK, now to the point of my blog ... these text messages were sent in 2002 and 2003, when the concept of instant mobile messaging between people was still new and fun and not fully understood. But even now, I'm not sure that corporate text messagers out there realize that their messages do not go directly to their friends' or colleagues' mobile devices. They first travel to a server at a service provider, such as SkyTel, before they're sent on their merry way to the recipient. Consumer mobile phone service providers claim they don't store messages very long (but I don't necessarily believe this, since law enforcement agencies have gotten access to consumer text messages in some criminal cases). Corporate texting/paging/e-mail providers typically treat storage of business messages differently for legal reasons. At some point, messages might be backed up on the service provider's storage systems, perhaps for a very long time. We know that SkyTel stored the messages between the mayor and his lover for five years.
The eternal hope, of course, is that people in power do good things. They don't run corrupt governments that hurt the people and cheat them out of millions, and they don't run corrupt corporations that hurt their employees and shareholders and cheat them out of millions. That said, anyone who is even remotely responsible for employees' use of text messaging -- including CIOs, technology, or business managers that approve the use of mobile devices for text messaging -- had better be aware, and make their colleagues aware, that naughty or incriminating text messages can be subpoenaed and can cause your company or organization great, great harm.
There's nothing you can do to stop people from writing or doing the wrong thing (except for hopefully make good judgments about whom you hire). But whatever you do, make sure that colleagues know that when they hit the send button, what they've sent is written in stone somewhere, possibly forever.
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