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'Don't spy on Verizon chair' - warned HP spooks

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The executives willing to testify about their roles in the HP spy scandal have claimed a blissful ignorance around the legal ins and outs of obtaining phone records. Their defense has hinged on the idea that they were assured by hired investigators that any phone snooping was legal and that they did not become really concerned about how phone records were obtained until learning of the euphemism "pretexting." Even after learning about pretexting, it took executives weeks to comprehend in full the fraud behind the practice.

Documents released this week by the House Energy and Commerce Committee show that - pretexting or not - HP's investigators knew they were in murky territory. .

HP's investigators, for example, knew enough about the touchy practice of securing phone records to stay away from board member and Verizon vice-chairman Lawrence Babbio.

"Babbio was report (sic) as a strong supporter of the former CEO (Carly Fiorina), however, due to Babbio's position with Verizon no attempts to obtain calls made from his cell phone were attempted," wrote Security Outsourcing Solutions, in a June 14, 2005 report to HP's investigative team.

The hesitation to spy on Babbio should have started alarm bells ringing in any curious, diligent executive's mind. Why would spying on Babbio be different from other directors simply because he works at Verizon - a company that has fought pretexting? (Verizon last week began lobbing lawsuits at investigators tied to the HP debacle.)

And there are more suspicious declarations in the SOS report.

"It should be noted, the investigation has been somewhat hindered by the inability to date, to obtain information on the telephone calls placed from Robert Knowling's (a board member) cell phone during the period January 1 to April 2005. The aforementioned cell phone is reportedly a restricted government phone account and records on this type of account are difficult to obtain," SOS wrote.

And later.

"The firm's attempts to obtain the calls made from Elgin and Burrows' (reporters for BusinessWeek) office telephones were not successful. Due to the number of lines associated with the account, a pin is required to access the call register information."

The report from SOS goes on to detail the monitoring of hundreds of calls made by directors and reporters from their home phones and cell phones. The investigators claim at times to be using "sources" and public records to get this call information. More often than not, however, they gloss over how the records were obtained or why they're having trouble getting records.

[We had to show you this bit from the reports too. "Recommendation that all future briefings being conducted verbally and keep written work product to a minimum" was the advice on an HP PowerPoint slide. Followed by, "Given media relationships, the Investigation and management team must be sensitive to 'media's' right to publish information."

How thoughtful.]

According to the chain of emails and reports, former Chairman Particia Dunn seems right in claiming that she did not know all the ins and outs of what was going on. That said, she did take a very active role in monitoring the investigation and received broad overviews of what types of information had been obtained and what HP still hoped to uncover.

Dunn has also claimed that she thought one needed only call the phone company and ask for someone else's records - no questions asked. It will be tough to maintain ties to such a veil of ignorance if state and federal investigators can show that Dunn even glanced at the above snippets.

The same goes for CEO Mark Hurd.

What's very clear from these documents is that knowledge of the term "pretexting" should have had very little to do with discerning the legal and ethical merits of HP's investigation. ®

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