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Accused pretexters enter mystery plea in old HP spy case

Father-and-son team charged with crimes related to HP's spy scandal enters plea, but that plea is immediately placed under seal by the court.

A father-and-son team of private investigators charged with crimes relating to Hewlett-Packard's infamous spy scandal entered a plea yesterday in federal court, but that plea was immediately placed under seal by the court.

It's unclear why the pleas were sealed, as related court documents have not been posted publically. But in general, a court has the right to seal documents if they contain issues of confidentiality that outweigh the public's right to access court proceedings and records. In this case, the parties requested the proceedings be sealed, and presiding U.S. District Court Judge D. Lowell Jensen granted that request, his clerk confirmed.

Outside U.S District Court in San Jose, Calif., where Matthew and Joseph DePante of Florida entered pleas Wednesday. Michelle Meyers/CNET

Late last year, Florida residents Matthew and Joseph DePante, at the time 32 and 64 respectively, were arraigned on charges of conspiring to commit Social Security fraud in connection with HP's controversial probe of boardroom leaks to journalists, which took place in late 2005 and early 2006. The DePantes had reserved their right to plea until yesterday's hearing in San Jose, Calif., which had been postponed several times do to procedural issues. Among those issues was a change in judges from Judge Lucy Koh to Jensen.

Jensen is also now presiding over a related 2007 case against Bryan Wagner, a former employee of the DePantes. So the court decided it made sense to reassign the DePante case to Jensen "to conserve judicial resources and promote an efficient determination of action." Incidentally, many of the documents related to Wagner, including a plea agreement, have been sealed as well.

The DePantes' 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, including Wagner, 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 HP Chairman Patricia Dunn (who died in 2011) 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.

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

Wagner appeared to be the only defendant facing federal charges in the spying, until the DePantes were charged in November. Wagner admitted to taking part in the spying campaign and pleaded guilty to identity theft and conspiracy in 2007,reportedly agreeing to testify against higher-ups in the case in exchange for leniency.

U.S District Court spokesman Jack Gilland said it appears both the Wagner and DePante cases are still open, but he couldn't offer any information on why filings in both cases have been sealed or the specific dispositions of the cases. And Richard Preira, the Miami lawyer representing Matthew DePante, did not return several phone calls and an e-mail seeking comment and clarification in the case.

Wagner had long been scheduled for sentencing, but his case fell through the cracks in part because his attorney recently notified the court that he's been declared inactive by the state bar. Court records allege that Wagner established an online account for existing local phone service for one of the reporters who was spied upon by using that reporter's Social Security number. That was how he obtained phone records requested by his co-conspirators, according to court records.

The secrecy surrounding the case leaves us wondering whether this is just the end of a very old saga, or perhaps--less likely this far down the pike--it's the beginning of a larger federal case targeting those who hired the DePantes' firm to begin with.