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Patricia Dunn, HP Chairman Fired for Snooping, Dies at 58

Former HP Chairman Patricia Dunn
Hewlett-Packard Chairman Patricia Dunn in an undated company photo. Source: Hewlett-Packard Co. via Bloomberg

Patricia Dunn, the onetime Hewlett-Packard Co. chairman fired in 2006 for overseeing a company investigation that relied on detectives posing as reporters to obtain phone records, has died. She was 58.

She died yesterday at her home in Orinda, California, according to a statement released by her family. The cause was ovarian cancer, one of three types of cancer she battled since 2002.

The Hewlett-Packard snooping scandal that cost Dunn her job, and had her facing criminal charges for a time, fueled debates over identity theft and corporate misbehavior. The company hired investigators who posed as reporters and company directors to obtain phone records of those people, a practice called “pretexting,” to root out who was leaking information to the media.

Dunn said she initiated the investigation at the insistence of a majority of Hewlett-Packard’s board and had received assurances that the methods used to obtain phone records were legal. One part of that probe, launched in January 2006, was prompted by a report by online news service that contained information discussed in a board strategy meeting.

The company’s board fired Dunn in September 2006, about four months before she planned to step down.

Pleased With Outcome

In 2007, Judge Ray Cunningham of Santa Clara Superior Court dismissed felony charges against Dunn, who had been charged with fraudulent wire communications, wrongful use of computer data, identity theft and conspiracy.

“I am pleased that this matter has been resolved fairly,” Dunn said at the time. “I have always had faith that the truth would win out.”

The investigation moved Congress and the California legislature to pass laws prohibiting the release of phone records without consent. Among the targeted reporters was Peter Burrows of BusinessWeek, which was acquired by Bloomberg LP in 2009.

Known as “Pattie,” Dunn repeatedly made Fortune magazine’s list of the most powerful women in business in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as co-chief executive officer of Barclays Global Investors, a unit of Barclays Plc. She stepped down as CEO in June 2002 to be treated for breast cancer and melanoma.

Newsweek Cover

The hunt for leakers at Hewlett-Packard wounded her public image. Newsweek magazine put her on its cover as “The Boss Who Spied on Her Board.”

“I was stunned,” Dunn told the New Yorker magazine for a 2007 article.

At the time, she was still facing criminal charges, and she told writer James Stewart that she feared not living long enough to beat them.

“I care deeply about what people who know me think,” she said. “But, in order to be exonerated, it takes so long. My legacy may be written before that can happen.”

She told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2010, “Some of this experience was negative and unhappy, but it didn’t ruin my life. I’ve expanded my work in the nonprofit community. You can move beyond something like this. I don’t see it as having defined me.”

Patricia Cecile Dunn was born on March 27, 1953, in Burbank, California, according to a biography on the website of All American Speakers LLC, which books paid lectures.

Degree in Journalism

She grew up in Las Vegas, where both her parents worked in the casino industry -- her father as entertainment manager at the Dunes and Tropicana hotels, her mother as a model and showgirl. After her father’s death when Dunn was 11, the family moved to California. Dunn began college at the University of Oregon and graduated in 1975 from the University of California at Berkeley, earning a degree in journalism.

Starting as a temporary secretary at Wells Fargo Investment Advisors, she worked her way up to CEO. Along the way she met William Jahnke, whom she would marry. Barclays bought the firm in 1996, and Dunn became the sole CEO in 1998.

She joined the Hewlett-Packard board in 1998, recruited by then-Chairman Lewis Platt, who cited her understanding of global financial markets while at Barclays.

“Pattie Dunn worked tirelessly for the good of HP,” Michael Thacker, a spokesman for the Palo Alto, California-based company, said in an e-mailed statement. “We are saddened by the news of her passing, and our thoughts go out to her family on their loss.”

Link With Fiorina

Dunn’s career was intertwined with the rise and fall of Carly Fiorina, another female executive who shattered the glass ceiling.

Fiorina was named CEO of Hewlett-Packard in 1999 after climbing the management ranks at Lucent Technologies Inc. Then 44, Fiorina was the first outsider to run Hewlett-Packard and the first woman in the position.

The board lost faith in her after she missed analysts’ earnings estimates and failed to meet goals set after the $18.9 billion purchase of Compaq Computer Corp.

Dunn played a central role in events leading to the 2005 ouster of Fiorina, writing a four-page report outlining the board’s concerns with her, the Wall Street Journal reported at the time. The company named Dunn chairman on Feb. 9, 2005.

Besides Jahnke, her husband of 30 years, survivors include daughters Janai Brengman and Michelle Cox, son Michael Jahnke and 10 grandchildren, according to the family statement.

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