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California and the West

Quackenbush Case Shows Public Pitfalls of Private E-Mail

May 30, 2000|MIGUEL BUSTILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Richard Steffen, a longtime legislative staffer working in the state Senate, knew better.

He understood the timeless rule that political operatives live by: Never put it in writing if you'd shudder seeing it in newsprint.

But he chatted on the government internal e-mail. And his girlfriend, Anne Mitchell, a mid-level Assembly researcher, chatted back, rather recklessly it turns out.

She responded to his e-mail about California Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush with an imprudence of the keyboard variety that wound up in the last place they would have wanted: Quackenbush's hands.

And that suddenly public e-mail fiasco has sent a chill of paranoia through the bureaucrats of Sacramento, who wonder whether all the memos, notes, jokes, intimacies and political indiscretions of theirs could suddenly, painfully, become public fodder.

"It's scary," one staffer said. "It's made everyone a bit skittish, to say the least. . . . Everybody is going back through their e-mails and checking to see whether they sent anything dangerous."

The telling memo hidden in a locked file has long been the stuff of government scandal. The course of a war was changed, for example, when Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers.

But now it's the scarlet e-letter, easier to fish out, that has politicians and their functionaries in a panic. Paper shredders offer no defense against data stashed somewhere on a backup computer drive.

In Washington, Republicans are in a huff over subpoenaed White House e-mails lost for two years through a computer glitch. In Sacramento, it is the Quackenbush e-mail--or e-mails, because a second surfaced by the end of last week.

The latest missive added fuel to one of Quackenbush's counterattacks: that he is the target of a partisan effort aimed at politically wounding the last Republicans holding statewide office in California, him and Secretary of State Bill Jones.

"The goal is to marginalize the last two standing Republicans," Bruce Roberson, chief of staff to Assemblyman Carl Washington (D-Compton), wrote an acquaintance in the latest leaked e-mail. "If successful, there's good money to say the Dems may take over the state completely."

That leak came on the heels of the disclosure of the 14-month-old communique between Steffen and Mitchell, which Quackenbush put to sensational use last week, brandishing it before storming out of a Senate Insurance Committee hearing as evidence that he was the victim of a Democrat witch hunt.

The e-mail mixed incendiary language about planning to "completely ambush" Quackenbush with the Democratic staffers' humdrum lunch plans at the Lemon Grass restaurant.

Just how Quackenbush is obtaining the e-mails is a Capitol mystery.

His defense attorney, Don Heller, confirmed that he also has numerous other e-mails, but declined to say how they were obtained. Heller also declined to discuss their contents other than to say they show a pattern of plotting against Quackenbush by Democrats.

"We're going to have to wait until the next legislative hearing," Heller said, pausing during a telephone interview to read an e-mail that crossed his computer screen.

"I am not trying to divert attention. Serious scrutiny occurs to people when they are in public office and they do something. What I am trying to determine is whether there is an ulterior motive."

Heller also has formally demanded copies of all e-mails discussing the preparation of the legislative hearings into his client's actions--a request that concerns many lawmakers.

"I want to see what they [lawmakers] do in producing these e-mails," he said. "It is always nice to be aggressive on the offensive."

Fearful of a security breach, this is one trend that Democrats and Republicans in Sacramento hope to stop.

Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) has ordered a test of the computer system to see whether someone has hacked into it. He also wants to know who has access to the system.

But Hertzberg said the true issue may be stupidity, not security.

"It's hard for me to understand because my background as a lawyer makes me very careful about what I put on paper," he said.

GOP Assemblyman Bill Leonard (R-San Bernardino) was considerably more blunt.

"It bothers me that someone would be that irresponsible that they would write something like that," he said, referring to the Steffen-Mitchell e-mail. "We have tried and tried to talk about being careful with e-mail, which is notoriously vulnerable to hacking."

So far, no one has found evidence of hacking or improper access, said state Legislative Counsel Bion Gregory. He oversees the Legislative Data Center, which maintains both houses' e-mail systems.

"They don't believe anyone has accessed the system from the outside," echoed John Waldie, chief administrator for the Assembly Rules Committee, which governs the lower house's internal affairs. "But they're looking."

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