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Pretexters avoid jail time after guilty plea in HP spying case

A judge sentences Joseph and Matthew DePante, a father and son team involved in Hewlett-Packard's infamous spy scandal, to three years probation and six months of house arrest as part of a plea agreement.

It only took about six and half years, but two defendants involved in Hewlett-Packard's infamous 2005-2006 spying campaign will actually be serving time for their crime -- sort of.

In San Jose, Calif., this morning, U.S. District Court Judge D. Lowell Jensen sentenced Joseph and Matthew DePante, a father and son team of former private investigators, to three years probation as part of a plea agreement sealed by the courts in February and unsealed last week.

As part of their probation, the DePantes, who both pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to falsely represent a Social Security number, will be on location-monitoring with restrictions for up to six months, a clerk for the judge confirmed. They will also have to pay a a $100 special assessment fee. A restitution hearing is scheduled for October 11.

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

It wasn't until late last year that 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' 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 targets in the HP investigations.

The two directed other investigators, including Bryan C. 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.

A related 2007 case against Wagner remains outstanding. He has entered a plea, which was also sealed. He's scheduled for sentencing before Judge Jensen on August 23.

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.

For years, Wagner appeared to be the only defendant facing federal charges in the spying -- at least until the DePantes were charged in late 2011. 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.

In sentencing the DePantes today, Jensen followed a memorandum drafted in advance by Assistant U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag. He didn't offer any leniency, despite a slew of letters submitted to the court on behalf of both defendants touting them as hard-working family men of high morals who would never knowingly break the law.

About the DePantes
The character references also reveal what the two men are doing these days. The younger DePante followed his dream of becoming a chef. He attended the French Culinary Institute in New York, worked at several restaurants, and now owns a booze-infused cupcake company with his wife called Spiked Bake Shop.

Matthew and Heidi Depante own and operate Spiked Bake Shop in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

In one of the letters about Matthew DePante, Lisa Duke, a paralegal and longtime friend of his wife, called the case a "travesty."

"The parties involved in the HP case have deep pockets. It seems to me that the 'little guy' was charged and forced to defend himself without any regard to how it would affect his family's future," she wrote.

Joseph DePante, who is described in letters as an Army veteran, was apparently unable to keep Action Research Group up in running due to the financial burdens related to the HP case, including the seizure of some computer equipment. He now owns a business with his wife called Grass Roots Creations, which makes beaded wire sculptures.

A character reference submitted on behalf of Joseph DePante also questioned the bigger players in the scandal. "Joe makes no excuses -- he clearly understands that what transpired was wrong and admits he played a role in passing information in violation of the law," wrote a friend, Matthew Duffy. "Still it is readily apparent there was no malintent or malice of forethought on his part...It is important to acknowledge that other individuals with equal, or perhaps far greater culpability in this matter, have had their cases dismissed."