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HP's lame mea culpa

At a news conference, CEO Mark Hurd put on a command performance--but that's all it was: a performance.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read
In 1952, Richard Nixon revived his flagging candidacy for the vice-presidential nomination on the Republican ticket with a mawkishly effective television performance known since by posterity as the "Checkers" speech.

Maybe if Mark Hurd had brought along a black and white spotted cocker spaniel for his gala media moment he could have defused the controversy surrounding the escalating corporate snooping scandal at Hewlett-Packard.

Such was not the case. On Friday afternoon HP's CEO offered one of the lamest mea culpas imaginable for the pretexting affair that has rocked this venerable company. He put on a scripted performance--but that's all it was: a performance. Hurd's brief remarks--it was originally billed as a press conference though reporters were not allowed to ask questions--raised even more questions. Perhaps some of them will get answered next week when Hurd gets sworn in before a congressional committee investigating the shenanigans that occurred on his watch.

But all Hurd managed to do was confirm the sneaking suspicion that very senior people at HP were going through the motions of doing their job.

Not the least being Hurd himself.

All Hurd managed to do was confirm the sneaking suspicion that very senior people at HP were going through the motions of doing their job.

In February 2006, Hurd approved a ridiculous scheme to trick a CNET News.com reporter by sending off a bogus e-mail to figure out her source inside the company. But Hurd, likely coached by a hotshot lawyer, says he can't recall seeing or approving the use of tracer technology. Well, that's swell of him. Now, where was his better judgment about the proprietary of this Inspector Clouseau routine?

Even stranger, Hurd's underlings sent in a memo reporting on the investigation that he failed to read. Failed to read? Was there a golf tournament going on that diverted his attention? Somewhere in the acronmym "CEO" you'll find the word "chief." Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines the term as the "head of a body of persons or an organization." If Hurd didn't think mastering the details of a spy probe were worth his time, he shouldn't be surprised things got out of hand.

Wall Street desperately wishes this affair blows over as soon as possible. No surprise there. Those folks are less interested in questions of corporate ethics than in keeping the money machine going with no interruptions. But HP's in a mess of its own making because of poor management.

Ever since HP appointed Hurd to replace Carly Fiorina in early 2005, he's been treated to an extended public relations honeymoon. In all of the adoring profiles written about Hurd that I've read, he comes across as a details-oriented, sleeves-rolled-up manager. I can understand why he might go berserk if told that board members were leaking confidential information. But the failure to pay attention to the methodologies employed doesn't jibe with the Mark Hurd image we've been handed.

And so it was that Patricia Dunn was served up as the sacrificial lamb. Somebody had to pay and she was the obvious candidate. (Bummer: Now I can't call this affair "Patriciagate" anymore.) In her written resignation, she passed the buck, saying underlings had let her down. "I did not select the people who conducted the investigation, which was undertaken after consultation with board members."

So she's no Harry Truman. I'm sure this isn't one of Dunn's best days but again, I'm left dumbfounded about the lack of good judgment. Both Dunn and Hurd can alibi all they want. But neither is a babe in the corporate woods. They ought to have paid closer attention after ordering up an investigation to plug the leaks--especially after learning about some of the techniques being employed.

I say all this at the risk of sounding like the armchair quarterback that I am. Then again, I'm not receiving millions of dollars in compensation to guide the fortunes of one of America's most storied technology companies.

These guys just have to be kidding.