Key to HP's credibility in hands of new lawyers

HP has chosen a venerable Philadelphia law firm to conduct an in-house investigation into its leaks scandal.

Greg Sandoval
Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
3 min read
WASHINGTON--Crucial to repairing Hewlett-Packard's credibility with the public following a controversial hunt for news leaks is whether the company's in-house investigation provides hard facts and avoids appearances of a whitewash, legal scholars say.

Handling that task is the venerable Philadelphia law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, which is conducting HP's internal probe. The firm appeared to get off to a good start Friday when HP announced the resignation of former Chairman Patricia Dunn and disclosed new revelations into the leak hunt, said Samuel Buell, associate professor of law at the Washington School of Law in St. Louis.

"I was pretty impressed with how forthcoming HP was and how much detail they offered on Friday," Buell said. "That doesn't mean there aren't unanswered questions. But I expect the company to be just as candid in the future."

Neither Mike Holston, the Morgan Lewis partner who spoke at the HP press conference on Friday, nor other members of Morgan Lewis responded to interview requests.

HP is under congressional scrutiny after executives admitted that investigators hired by the company to uncover the source of news leaks accessed personal phone records of HP employees, board members and nine journalists, including three from CNET News.com.

HP also acknowledged obtaining some Social Security numbers, going through individuals' trash, and sending a bogus e-mail tip to a CNET News.com reporter that may have included an electronic tracer designed to reveal the IP address of anyone who received a forwarded copy of the e-mail.

To get a better handle on the crisis, HP CEO Mark Hurd hired a law firm that is seen as a Silicon Valley outsider.

"This sends the message that HP wants a thorough and independent investigation," Buell said.

Spearheading Morgan Lewis' review of HP is Holston, a former federal prosecutor. While two legal experts acknowledge that Holston is not a "household name," his experience as a prosecutor will help him run his investigation.

Philadelphia attorney Marc Raspanti of the firm Miller, Alfano and Raspanti has worked with and against Holston and said Holston has done a "fair amount of internal investigations."

That means Holston is probably aware of the scrutiny his investigation faces. For HP, leaning on an experienced former federal prosecutor may go a long way to establishing credibility for its investigation.

The 133-year-old law firm also packs the kind of political muscle and can boast the heavyweight attorneys that can navigate a congressional or criminal probe, said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor who specializes in white-collar crime. A key aspect of representing a client in an investigation like this is getting an early meeting with the prosecutors to get a read on what they plan to do, Henning said.

"They have the contacts and they have the credibility, too," Henning said. "They're a well-respected law firm. A lot of this is connections...not that you're going to get favorable treatment--but can you get your phone call returned?"

Among Morgan Lewis' ranks are Christian Mixter, a well-regarded former chief counsel for the Securities and Exchange Commission's enforcement division, and Leslie Caldwell, who served as head of a special U.S. Department of Justice task force convened to investigate the Enron scandal and who once presided over the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California.

If Holston's probe is thorough, HP should be prepared for surprises, Raspanti said.

"Every time you start looking under rocks," warned Raspanti, "you never know what you're going to find."