September 09, 2006
Well, it took just over 24 hours for Hewlett Packard’s leadership to back off its original line of defense — that the actions of its investigators were not “generally unlawful” under current law — in the so-called “pretexting” scandal. HP’s retreat from this indefensible and absurd position is at this stage only partial. But backing down on the silly assertion that it is legally okay to lie to steal stuff must leave some of HP’s more gullible defenders feeling as though they’ve been left twisting in the wind. As the scandal broke, you’ll recall, H-P initially responded by pointing to a legal opinion the company had obtained which asserted that “pretexting” to obtain the private phone records of its board members and nine journalists was not a clear violation of the law. Remarkably, more than a few media outlets bought into that whopper, which led to a spate of stories yesterday, which I commented on, about the supposed need for new laws to prevent “pretexting.” That line of defense collapsed almost as quickly as it was drawn, however, when it became readily apparent that what was really being talked about, lying to obtain private information that belongs to someone else is, in reality, just plain old garden variety fraud. So today, after both the state attorney general and other legal experts made it clear that fraud remains a crime even if the perpetrator calls it something else, HP’s Board Chair Pattie Dunn dug herself into an even deeper hole by blasting the board member who brought the illegal actions to light. That’s progress, I suppose.
Still, the questions that most need to be asked have not been answered by Dunn or her spokesperson. Perhaps they will be answered under oath. At what point did the company’s leaders become aware that private phone records had been obtained? How did they think those records were obtained? Who obtained those records and who supervised the project on behalf of HP?
Those are the questions that HP will need to answer and act on to regain its credibility and begin the process of putting this sorry episode behind it. Those are also the questions members of the press, and particularly media outlets that rely on HP ad dollars, must ask if they don’t want to look like apologists or dupes.
ADDENDUM: From today’s Wall Street Journal:
Ms. Dunn said she regularly informed the board of the investigation, but provided few details, at the investigators’ request. It isn’t clear, absent the H-P directors’ permission, how Ms. Dunn thought the investigators were obtaining their phone records…In the interview, Ms. Dunn said her knowledge of the tactics used in the investigation was limited, because she was a potential subject of the probe. “As a subject of the investigation, I couldn’t know everything,” she said. Ms. Dunn said she doesn’t know “the identities of all the firms involved that H-P uses to do this work.” Ms. Dunn said she didn’t learn that “pretexting” involved the potentially fraudulent representation of directors’ identity until August, when a board committee’s review of the leak investigation was concluding. She said she only found out this past Wednesday night that investigators hired by H-P had also used pretexting to gain access to reporters’ phone records.
Wow. Some pretty big admissions there. Leaving open the obvious question: so why didn’t she call the cops? And what about that “board committee” that was running the investigation? Just where did the members of that board committee think those private phone records were coming from? Looks like there are more shoes to drop. Perhaps a whole shoe store’s worth. Astonishing…