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Time for HP to clean house

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says the burgeoning "Patriciagate" scandal is spiraling out of control.

Until now, Hewlett-Packard Chairman Patricia Dunn and her henchmen deserved the benefit of the doubt. Now they deserve the boot. In a move that recalls the silliest days of the Nixon White House, HP spied on its own board members to locate the source of a press leak. That was monumentally bad judgment. With the unfolding of the "Patriciagate" scandal, we now know that HP's operatives also spied on reporters. That's monumental stupidity.

After a January CNET News.com article disclosed details of HP's strategic planning, Dunn assumed the anonymous source in the story was a board member and ordered an investigation. It's still unclear when she decided to let her colleagues in on this particular brainstorm.

When you reach Dunn's level of accomplishment, it's assumed you know right from wrong.

After learning that investigators obtained his private telephone records from AT&T without his permission, Tom Perkins resigned in May as an HP director. A Silicon Valley power broker and co-founder of the venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, he finally went public with details of this latter day Plumbers stunt earlier in the week. That blew the lid of secrecy off the story.

It turns out that HP's crack investigators also accessed the personal phone records of my News.com colleagues Dawn Kawamoto and Tom Krazit, who co-wrote the story at the center of this affair. Other reporters, including individuals at The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, also were targeted. Later today, California's attorney general is expected to release a list with the names of journalists whose phone records, he believes, were illegally obtained.

"HP is dismayed that the phone records of journalists were accessed without their knowledge and we are fully cooperating with the attorney general in his investigation," Mike Moeller, an HP spokesman told News.com.

Sorry, Sparky. Not good enough.

Neither is the hair-splitting language HP's legal beagles used to submit the company's official explanation of the affair to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Instead of coming clean, the company stonewalled. It initially sought to keep its hands clean by pointing blame at an unidentified outside consulting firm. In some cases, HP declared, the company had employed "pretexting" but that its use at the time of the investigation "was not generally unlawful." The document went on to add that nobody at HP could say for sure whether the techniques employed were entirely legal.

The HP lawyer who worked up that rationale obviously skipped one too many ethics classes. This remarkable circumlocution notwithstanding, the Federal Trade Commission is quite clear about when pretexting is against the law. Similarly, California law prohibits impersonating someone else to get their phone records.

Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. Since Mark Hurd took over from Carly Fiorina as CEO in January 2005, the company had enjoyed an extended period of stability with improving sales and earnings. With the , the company faces its biggest public relations crisis since the board threw Carly Fiorina to the dogs.

Patricia Dunn is not an idiot. She's been an HP director since 1998 and the chairman of the company's board of directors since February 2005. Dunn is the former CEO of Barclays Global Investors and serves on the advisory board of the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business. When you reach Dunn's level of accomplishment, it's assumed you know right from wrong.

If you can't meet that minimum qualification, the job should go to someone else.