By: Robert Hilson
Date: Thursday, July 18, 2013
When Fabrice Tourre, the embattled former Goldman Sachs executive whose trial began this week, referred to himself as the “Fabulous Fab” in a 2007 email to his girlfriend, he couldn’t have known that flippant remark would become a smoking gun in a suit by the US government against him.
The US Securities and Exchange Commission has accused Tourre in a Manhattan federal court of misleading a Goldman investor, ACA Management, into believing his firm would invest in a mortgage-backed security that it later bet against. The crucial pieces of evidence, which US district Judge Katherine Forest last week said could be shown to the jury, are the results of a few clicks of “send” Tourre wishes he could retrieve.
The pivotal email, sent in January 2007 as global financial markets neared meltdown, read:
More and more leverage in the system. The whole building is about to collapse anytime now. Only potential survivor, the fabulous Fab, standing in the middle of all these complex, highly levered, exotic trades… created without… understanding all the implications of those monstruosities (sic)!!!
Anyway, not feeling to guilty about this, the real purpose of my job is to make capital markets more efficient and… provide the US consumer with more efficient ways to leverage and finance himself, so there is a humble, noble, and ethical reason for my job
; ) amazing how good I am in convincing myself!!!
In other emails, Tourre called the derivative investment he was selling “a product of pure intellectual masturbation” and described it as “a little Frankenstein turning against his own inventor.”
“These emails were personal emails that I deeply regret,” Tourre told a congressional committee in 2010. Goldman is paying for his defense costs.
Despite warnings, sending of candid emails persists
Those communications have taken on new life due to their potential importance in the SEC’s fraud case. Matthew Martens, the head SEC lawyer, read the “Fabulous Fab” passage to jurors as opening arguments began Monday.
Tourre is not the first executive to send a compromising email, nor will he be the last. Six years after that fateful click, and many warnings later, email etiquette among business and legal professionals shows few signs of improving. This year alone has afforded a goldmine of material to those seeking a juicy scandal.
In March, emails by DLA Piper lawyers appearing to make light of over-billing of then-client Adam Victor surfaced in a New York state court suit by Victor accusing the firm of fee-churning. “That bill shall show no limits!” one DLA attorney wrote to another. The firm settled in April.
“I don’t know what [DLA Piper] was thinking. But whatever they were thinking, they were wrong,” Larry Hutcher, attorney for Victor at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, in New York, told ACEDS.
That firestorm came on the heels of the revelation in January that Morgan Stanley executives, selling derivative investments to a Taiwanese bank, referred to those toxic instruments as the “Nuclear Holocaust,” “Subprime Meltdown” and “Mike Tyson’s Punchout” in internal exchanges. Those emails surfaced in a civil suit by China Development Industrial Bank seeking $240 million in damages, and are thought to play a decisive role in showing Morgan Stanley knowingly misrepresented the investments it sold the plaintiff.
Historical examples are numerous. It was internal emails that laid a trail for prosecutors and civil plaintiffs from convicted fraudster Scott Rothstein to his alleged abettors at TD Bank. In 1999, American Home Products Corp. settled for nearly $4 billion with consumers of a diet pill it sold shown to cause fatal lung disease after an employee email calling the plaintiffs “fat people” with “a silly lung” problem surfaced.
The list goes on.
Language, not method, cause for concern
Taken together, the cases show the perils of engaging in uninhibited electronic messaging in professional settings, where each send leaves behind a potentially compromising record for an adversary’s e-discovery team to excavate. Emails sent under the guise of privacy have wreaked havoc on the careers and reputations of many lawyers and executives. In many instances, the long tail of embarrassment and media scrutiny lasts long after email providers purge their archives.
“The issue is not the sending of the emails,” says attorney Jacob Frenkel, partner at Shulman Rogers in Potomac, Maryland, and head of the firm’s Security Enforcement and White-Collar Criminal practices. “The issue is the thought and wording.”
“Email is useful to lawyers and business people because it confirms a record of communication,” he tells ACEDS. “Nevertheless, the source of regret in litigation is the language.”
Email can be a different animal for lawyers than for other professionals, Frenkel suggests, given its usefulness as a time-keeping device. Attorneys may rely on emails to help calculate time spent with clients and keep a record of attorney-client interactions. Sending an email can also be more convenient than calling.
But the consequences for lawyers can also be starkly different, as evidenced by the DLA Piper debacle. Given their knowledge of the discovery process, there are few excuses for poor email etiquette, one expert says.
“One would think that fear of landing on the front page of the newspaper, or seeing their own clients make poor email choices, would be enough to stop lawyers from memorializing some of their thoughts and actions in writing,” says attorney Allison Walton, CEO of Fortis Quay, an e-risk consulting company in Los Angeles.
“Business executives get more of a pass considering they may not have had exposure to the discovery process and may be unfamiliar with e-discovery altogether,” she tells ACEDS.
Many lessons, few lessons learned
For prosecutors, plaintiffs attorneys and others, the regrettable email send is a valuable gift that won’t stop giving. Emails can show state of mind and can be used to great effect in front of a jury. Social media and text messaging, to which much of this unrestrained behavior has gravitated, have shown to be equally lucrative sources of ESI. The improvement in search tools and advanced analytics has only made “smoking guns” easier to identify.
“They almost always exist and locating them has become easier with technology,” Walton says.
To be sure, most mature organizations train employees on email etiquette as part of compliance and education initiatives. Walton says doing so should be a mandatory best practice for storage, work process and discovery reasons.
But, in the end, organizations must trust the judgment of the person who is communicating. And that’s often a shaky proposition.
“The reality is that we are dealing with human nature and behaviors that are difficult to change,” Walton says.
Adds Frenkel, “These [executives and lawyers] haven’t learned their lesson, and they will never learn their lesson.”Link to original article