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By Steve Adubato, Ph.D.
Sure, it was only a story for a couple of days, but the “forbidden” e-mails between former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine and his ex-girlfriend and powerful union leader Carla Katz provide an excellent case study on how NOT to handle such a sensitive and complex political and PR issue. Corzine led a two-year battle to keep these 123 e-mails private between him and Katz at a time when the state was negotiating a massive contract with thousands of state workers who Katz represented on behalf of the Communications Workers of America (CWA). The negotiations were intense and heated and there were lots of sensitive and difficult issues to resolve between the state and its employees at a time where New Jersey’s fiscal crisis was beginning to become clear.
Corzine told me on many occasions in television interviews on PBS that these e-mails were in fact private and in no way had anything to do with the negotiations. Further, Corzine insisted that he and Katz communicated in the same way he would have done with other union leaders. He said at the time; “This is not an ongoing, active relationship …It’s no different than my relationship with (state AFL-CIO leader) Charlie Wowkanech”. But that just wasn’t true.
When The Star-Ledger released those e-mails on Sunday, August 1, a very different picture was exposed. Granted, 100 of the 123 e-mails came from Katz, and only 23 from the governor. Further, there was no direct negotiation going on between the governor and his former girlfriend / labor leader in connection with the union contract. However, it was incredibly inappropriate for the two of them to be communicating at this time and Katz continually pressed the governor on her intense desire for him to respond to her e-mails on countless subjects that in many ways had a potential impact on the negotiation process.
Simply put, the appearance of conflict in this case may be more important than an actual conflict. Katz made constant references to their sexual and romantic relationship of the past. She talked about the governor’s sexual prowess and the things that they could and should be doing to and with each other in the privacy of their respective bedrooms. (Yuck.) I’m just not convinced Corzine had the same e-mail communication going on with Charlie Wowkanech of the AFL-CIO.
What’s so stupid about this is that Corzine not only spent two years and $127,000 of tax payer money fighting through the courts against the release of these e-mails, but that ultimately, if they had been released at the time, it would have just been embarrassing and awkward. But now, it has a much greater impact. As they say, the cover up is always worse than the initial mistake or incident. Simply put, Corzine chose to lie about the e-mails.
In countless situations Katz was asking Corzine for his help as it relates to her ongoing battle with union rivals who were questioning her relationship with the governor and whether it was putting the negotiations process at risk. Yes, she was driving much of the communication and he was resisting it, but he should have simply said, “I’m not going to communicate with you until these negotiations are over. It’s a conflict. Don’t write back.”
This whole e-mail debacle has unnecessarily tarnished a good man’s reputation. I’ve always respected Jon Corzine and found him to be a decent public servant with integrity. But, his political judgment was consistently off base. He would let these personal relationships get in the way of doing his job. He did it by giving and loaning money to people who were way too close to the political and governmental process. In Katz’ situation, we are talking $6 million. Sure, he had a right to do it, but to not understand the potential appearance of that is insanity.
The lesson of the Corzine / Katz e-mail saga is that when you’re the state’s chief executive, you should assume that virtually all of your communication with anyone other than your direct family and closest friends (who are doing no business with the state) will potentially become public. Jon Corzine should have known that when he ran for governor. It’s too bad that many will remember our former governor based on these lurid and tawdry e-mails written by his former girlfriend who had little to lose. Corzine’s heart was usually in the right place, but his judgment was seriously in doubt.
Steve Adubato, Ph.D. regularly contributes to CBS 2 News Sunday Morning. Dr. Adubato is an Emmy Award-winning television anchor and syndicated columnist, and is author of the books “Make the Connection” and the upcoming “What Were They Thinking? Crisis Communication: The Good, the Bad and the Totally Clueless.”