Hillary Clinton’s email mess continues to cause her grief and dog her presidential campaign.

She had claimed previously that she did not submit classified government information in emails sent through her private server maintained at her home in Chappaqua, New York, but now an inspector’s general report has found otherwise — including that some of these emails were not labeled classified. The IG has asked the Department of Justice to consider an investigation.

As serious as these latest revelations are, other individuals have also been ensnared by problems with email use at work. While their stories vary and do not rise to the level of Clinton’s transgressions, taken together they’re a cautionary tale about the uses of email today to conduct business.

Former White House aide Doug Badger was another. Anyone else could be next. So consider this a cautionary tale, with some critical tips.

After a decades-long career in law, lobbying and legislation, Badger never expected something so seemingly inconsequential as emails to provoke so much attention.

Years before Hillary Clinton’s emails as secretary of state became a lightning rod, Badger’s emails during his 2002-2006 tenure as a senior health care adviser to President George W. Bush were demanded by Rep. Henry Waxman of California, a leading Democratic critic of Bush. Waxman, the then-chairman of the House Oversight Committee, had accused Badger of threatening the job of a fellow administration official during Bush’s controversial Medicare Part D proposal rollout.

  “A lot of people just quickly shoot off an email or a response without thinking about it.”

Waxman and other Democrats wrote the White House to demand answers — and promptly sent it into lockdown mode. Badger’s archived emails were seized by presidential lawyers, and he lost access to them.

“I wasn’t particularly concerned about the allegations because I knew they were false, but I was trying to remember, ‘What did I write?’” Badger said. “What did people write to me? If you’re someone who gets 150 to 200 emails a day, sometimes you answer flippantly or perhaps carelessly. So how could someone who’s not part of that correspondence construe them? I didn’t even have the opportunity to look to be sure.”

Ultimately, Badger was cleared after a deal was struck with Waxman to turn over some of Badger’s emails. The House committee declined to press charges. Bush never raised the issue with Badger, even promoting him to a congressional liaison position a year later.

9352_thumb But the lesson was well-learned, not only by Badger but, he suspects, by Clinton, who this year was discovered to have used a private email server while secretary of state. The resulting controversy came just as she was launching her presidential bid this spring, and is still hobbling the former first lady politically.

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“The obvious lesson is to watch what you write,” said Badger, who is now a retired lobbyist. “People aren’t perfect, and we all do and write things that upon reflection we wouldn’t have done.”

Similar advice comes from employment attorneys and consultants throughout D.C. Email has become such a common and widely used form of communication that it is often the first thing attorneys will seek in a court case, or the first piece of proof sought by a boss in terminating an employee. Beyond the obvious do’s and don’ts, attorneys in particular say more forethought on the front end of an email can pay off later in legal, financial and political ways.


Rule No. 1 is to exercise caution. Lawyers say they are continually surprised at how such a basic piece of advice is learned anew every day.

“It’s shocking that people don’t think about it,” said Alexis Ronickher, a  D.C. employment lawyer. “A lot of people just quickly shoot off an email or a response without thinking about it.”

Remember who owns your work email. This is especially important for federal employees.

Rule No. 2 is to remember who owns your work email. This is especially important for federal employees.

“It’s not your property, it’s the government’s,” said Kerrie Riggs, who works in federal employment litigation in Washington. “People forget that it’s not private. It’s also a good idea to keep your personal email separate from work, and vice versa, or you may open yourself up to risk.”

Riggs said emails come up in almost every case of employment litigation, and Badger said even the status of being a White House employee could not save his emails from scrutiny.

“But while the White House can try to assert executive privilege, that doesn’t apply to executive agencies because those senior officials are confirmed by the Senate and are supposed to be answerable to Congress,” Badger said. “You never own your emails if you are a public servant.”


First, don’t assume.

Assuming you know how an email will be perceived is a big no-no. Some of the most common email mistakes involve mistaken assumptions.

At Ronickher’s firm, for example, one past client who was a well-known civil-rights supporter forwarded to a group email list a racially hostile image he had seen, assuming everyone would understand he found the image offensive. They didn’t, and the man lost his job.

Another tip: Be careful with capital letters, punctuations and abbreviations. Another client who was older and had poor eyesight typed his emails in all uppercase letters, not realizing he was being perceived as aggressive. Yet another client was fired for simply forwarding an email from a co-worker who had complained about their boss. The email was used in litigation to show ongoing commiseration among employees about the boss.

“You should never assume your audience knows you’re joking or what a particular abbreviation means.”

“We see this all the time, and it can be prevented by taking a moment before responding. Re-read an email before you send it,” Ronickher said. “Sometimes just a minute or two can make a difference … And your tone isn’t always clear in emails, so you should never assume your audience knows you’re joking or what a particular abbreviation means.”

Nicholas Woodfield, a Washington lawyer with the Employment Law Group, puts it more succinctly: The “e” in “email,” he said, should really stand for “evidence.”

Woodfield remembers an opposing attorney who ranted about a federal judge in an email to his own client. When the opposing attorney’s client sent Woodfield a check to be forwarded to Woodfield’s client, the man printed out and included his attorney’s written rant along with the check.

“People, including lawyers, have become so familiar with email that it’s now treated in such a manner that they frequently forget it’s an electronic record,” Woodfield said. “Even if you’re intending to send a short note to a colleague, you’re recording for all history some thoughts you may not be filtering. In fact, the ease of sending an email prevents further reflection that you might have if you were writing a letter. People are just driven by primal impulses, and that isn’t always filtered by a keyboard.”