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Plea hearing postponed in HP spy scandal redux

We won't have pleas in HP's infamous "pretexting" scandal 'til next year. The big question: Why are the feds resurrecting the 5-year-old case now?

Outside U.S District Court in San Jose, Calif., where Matthew and Joseph DePante of Florida stood before a federal judge Wednesday on criminal charges related to HP's spy scandal. Michelle Meyers/CNET

SAN JOSE, Calif.--More than four and a half years after a California judge effectively dismissed criminal charges against the major players in Hewlett-Packard's spying scandal, federal prosecutors are bringing the case back to life.

A father-and-son team of private investigators went before a judge today in the U.S. District Court in San Jose intending to plead guilty on charges relating to HP's controversial probe of boardroom leaks to journalists, which took place in late 2005 and early 2006.

Matthew DePante, 32, and his father Joseph DePante, 64, were arraigned last week on charges of conspiring to commit Social Security fraud in connection with the HP investigation. They had reserved their right to plea and were scheduled to enter a guilty plea at a hearing this morning.

Former HP Chairman Patricia Dunn (left); then-CEO Mark Hurd (right) Greg Sandoval for CNET/HP

Due to some last-minute confusion over the details in the drafted plea agreement, however, the proceeding was postponed until January 11. Although the plea agreement draft was not made public, presiding judge Lucy Koh appeared to be concerned about how the charges laid out in the document would relate to sentencing and wanted to ensure the defendants were well aware of how proposed edits would affect their future.

"There's no reason to do this hastily," she said. "This could be 10 [months], 12 [months], a year in jail."

The DePante's Melbourne, Fla.-based private investigation firm, Action Research Group, was hired indirectly by HP (through another contractor) and used the now illegal practice of "pretexting," which involves obtaining personal information under false pretenses. Among the journalists and board members targeted were three CNET News reporters and one reporter's father, according to court documents filed by assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Cheng. Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Business Week reporters were also targeted in the HP investigations.

The two directed other investigators, who posed as account holders or employees of phone companies, to fraudulently obtain personal information including phone numbers, date of birth, Social Security numbers, call logs, billing records and subscriber information, according to the court documents.

In 2006, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer filed related felony charges against then HP Chairman Patricia Dunn and three other defendants, including the younger DePante; former HP attorney Kevin Hunsaker; and private detective Ronald DeLia. But in March 2007, those charges were reduced and then dismissed presuming the completion of community service.

So why would the federal government wait more than five and a half years after the alleged offenses to file charges against the DePantes? Cheng referred that question to U.S District Court spokesman Jack Gilland, who said his office couldn't discuss an ongoing case.

Likewise, Matthew DePante's attorney, Susy Ribero-Ayala, and Joseph DePante's attorney, Richard Preira, both of Miami, declined to comment publicly while the case is ongoing.

"We certainly didn't anticipate this would go on for five and a half years," Ribero-Ayala said in a response to Judge Koh. The attorneys and their defendant clients traveled here from Florida; the lawyers may ask for some financial assistance on their clients' behalf to cover some of the travel expenses.

Also unanswered is the question of why the DePantes are being charged in federal court now, unlike other players in the case.

In the wake of the scandal, Congress held hearings on the matter and the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office launched investigations. HP also faced a formal inquiry from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as shareholder lawsuits.