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Why texting and politics are a dangerous mix

Ben Schmitt
| Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, 11:51 a.m.
Politicians (from left) Kwame Kilpatrick, Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner and Tim Murphy were brought down by the resurfacing of text messages that revealed criminal or morally challenged behavior.
AP, Getty Images
Politicians (from left) Kwame Kilpatrick, Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner and Tim Murphy were brought down by the resurfacing of text messages that revealed criminal or morally challenged behavior.

Like many politicians before him, U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy ruined his political career with technology.

He won't be the last, analysts say.

Murphy, a Republican from Upper St. Clair, is resigning after reported text messages showed he urged his mistress to get an abortion when he believed she was pregnant. She turned out not to be, but the messages revealed a private reversal of his pro-life political stance.

Here are a few of Murphy's public servant predecessors who have fallen victim to the fatal text message that cost them their careers and, in some cases, landed them in prison.

• Anthony Weiner, a former Democratic congressman from New York, was sentenced in September to 21 months in federal prison for sexting with a minor. The charges stem from communications that the former congressman had with a 15-year-old girl on social media sites between January and March 2016. At the time, Weiner was communicating with the girl, he was allegedly in contact with 19 other women.

• Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was hit with state and federal charges involving an array of text messages. First, he resigned from office and served 90 days in jail in 2008 for perjury after text messages sent to his lover and chief of staff, Christine Beatty, showed he perjured himself in a civil trial when he denied the pair had an affair. Then, the feds came after him on much more serious charges. Kilpatrick's text messages helped prosecutors convict the disgraced former mayor in 2013 of racketeering, extortion, bribery, mail and wire fraud. He's serving 28 years in federal prison.

• Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer got caught up in a federal investigation of a prostitution ring called the Emperor's Club VIP in which text messages revealed him as a regular customer. He was not charged with a crime.

Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University and author of “Sex Scandals in American Politics,” offered several explanations for this continuing lack of good judgment.

“The first one has to do with our disbelief that technology consistently goes viral and will actually do so with us,” she said. “We all speed and then we're really surprised when we get a speeding ticket. We think it's not going to happen to us.”

Texting has been around for only about a decade, so it's still a relatively new form of communication. Compound that with Murphy's age (65), and it's a recipe for political undoing.

“Congressman Murphy is older and probably felt very safe and comfortable texting his mistress,” Dagnes said. “He was thinking it was always going to be private.

“Surprise!”

She offered this cautious reminder:

“When you press send on anything, you are giving the person that you are sending something to a lot of power over you.”

Long before the text messaging era, former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, a presidential hopeful in 1988, dared reporters to follow him as they investigated adultery rumors.

“And they did, and they caught him — imagine that,” said Paul Furiga, founder of WordWrite Communications, a Pittsburgh public relations firm. “Something about power creates behavior problems for some elected officials.”

Politicians also are prone to regular old human behavior.

“It seems nearly every person with texting issues — including politicians — forgets that texts can be copied, forwarded and otherwise used to embarrass because they create a permanent electronic record — unless they are deleted,” Furiga said.

Take Kilpatrick, once a rising charismatic political star in Michigan, elected mayor at 31. Not only were his text messages with his mistress embarrassing, they showed a pattern of criminal behavior.

Sexually explicit text messages revealed he lied during a trial to cover up an affair and gave misleading testimony about the firing of a deputy police chief who suspected wrongdoing at city hall.

In the federal case against him, prosecutors targeted $84 million in contracts given to Kilpatrick's excavator friend Bobby Ferguson, who also went to prison. Kilpatrick was buried by his own text messages, which showed he helped fix city deals for Ferguson.

Sometimes they even took a dive on purpose.

“Bobby wanted to strategically lose a major bid,” he texted his chief of staff after she questioned why he wasn't in the running for a major city contract.

His sexting was so salacious it prompted two Detroit Free Press reporters covering the mayor's downfall to log the best of them in a book, “ The Kwame Sutra .”

Confidentiality is a thing of the past, said Gerald Shuster, a political communication professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

“You can spread information so broadly, so quickly,” he said. “Once the horses leave the barn, there's no catching them.”

And there's no end in sight to political texting missteps.

“With the advent of social media and enhanced technology, you can bet it is going to happen again,” he said.

Murphy had other possible problems with his phone.

A memo from his chief of staff revealed he frequently texts and drives.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, bschmitt@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Bencschmitt.

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