HP Goes to Washington

A tragi-comedy for our times makes its highly anticipated debut on Capitol Hill. Here are sketches of the leading players

True to congressional form, a Sept. 28 House of Representatives hearing on Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ) now infamous investigative methods was long on soliloquy, heavy on finger-pointing, and woefully short on high drama. And for a proceeding aimed at probing how a company handled leaks, this one was a sieve. In the days leading up to the hearing by the subcommittee on oversight and investigations, the news media was fed a steady diet of little plot revealers—a damning e-mail here, a memo there. Plenty to keep the HP headlines rolling.

Alas, by the time the lights dimmed, the foreshadowing had been overdone. Even the lines of the show's two biggest stars—HP Chief Executive Mark Hurd and former Chairwoman Patricia Dunn—were previewed the night before when House staffers posted each one's written testimony on the House Energy & Commerce Committee's Web site. So much for suspense.

Instead, the show was part tragedy, part comedy of errors. "This is enormously sad," said Representative Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.). Despite the flaws, there were some stellar performances. Herewith, a review:

Ann Baskins

Show stealer. HP's general counsel dropped the day's biggest bombshell without opening her mouth. Just after dawn HP and Baskins' attorneys announced that she had quit the company after 24 years. The lawyers digitally dumped some 30 pages of e-mails and penciled notes into cyberspace, a payload that gave the chattering class an adrenaline rush. Among the documents—a damning e-mail from HP Director of Ethics Kevin Hunsaker signing off on the legality of the "common" practice of lying to phone companies to obtain individuals' records. (It's known as pretexting and California's Attorney General Bill Lockyer begs to differ on the subject of its legality.) When she appeared before the committee nearly six hours later, Baskins invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Then, with a sympathetic and supportive smile to Dunn, she took her leave. Baskins, Dunn said later, "bled HP-blue ink."

Bryan Wagner

This morality play's Fifth Business—neither hero nor villain, but crucial to the plot. Wagner was an employee of Action Research Group, a private investigative outfit in Florida, when in February he was assigned the task of obtaining the phone records of former HP Director George Keyworth and his wife. Now retired from the gumshoe industry, Wagner, 29, appeared before the committee in a rumpled shirt, sans suit, and sans lawyer. He wouldn't testify, but couldn't resist giving a clutch of waiting reporters his two cents. "The phone companies are at fault," Wagner said. "They obviously have some means to make changes. They could hire someone like me to show them what to do." An attorney passing his way told him he might want to keep his thoughts to himself, what with the invocation of the Fifth Amendment and all.

Larry Sonsini

Channeling Bill Clinton, a lawyer through and through. As outside counsel to the board, Sonsini in June had assured former HP board member Tom Perkins in an e-mail that "it appears" that the methods being used in Dunn's leak investigation were on the up and up—"well done" and "within legal limits." What does that mean? That would depend on Sonsini's definition of "appears." "I never took a position that pretexting is legal," Sonsini said. "The press took an e-mail [from me] and made it into a legal opinion." Confused? Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) sure was. "You seem to contradict yourself several times," she said. Sonsini told the congresswoman he chose his words carefully. "I said 'it appears.'"

Fred Adler

Mild-mannered scene stealer. This former fed, who now is in charge of HP's security investigations, volunteered the astonishing news that HP has a regular practice of using tracers—surreptitious computer programs embedded in e-mails that can be used to trace digital communication. The company uses the technology to track inventory theft or help law enforcement find missing children. In the case of the boardroom leak investigation, HP employed the technology to follow the path of an e-mail sent to a reporter. "It's still in use at HP," a straight-faced Adler said, without a touch of irony. Lawmakers were nonplussed. "That," said Representative Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), "is kind of sleazy." Adler assured the committee that HP doesn't use tracer technology on customers.

Patricia Dunn

An Oscar for a starring role. Dunn played the tragic heroine despite the committee's relentless efforts to paint her the villain. She stayed true to her character under enormous pressure, hitting her marks and nailing her lines with aplomb. Maybe too much aplomb. "I do not accept personal responsibility for what happened," was one favorite line. Also, "I dispute ever being told that the fraudulent use of identity was being used." And, "I deeply regret that so many people, including me, were let down." Representative John Dingell (D-Mich.) summed it up: "What were you thinking?"

Mark Hurd

Truthsayer: "If Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard were alive today, they'd be appalled."

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