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Originally published Friday, September 29, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Legislators toss brickbats at executives, themselves

The corporate-spying scandal at Hewlett-Packard was so shocking that lawmakers had trouble even describing it as they grilled company executives...

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The corporate-spying scandal at Hewlett-Packard was so shocking that lawmakers had trouble even describing it as they grilled company executives Thursday.

"As I reviewed all of the documents for this hearing today, I felt like I was looking at a proposal for a made-for-TV movie," announced Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., at the start of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing into HP's use of "pretexting" to get phone records.

On the contrary, said Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., HP's wrongdoing "unfolded like the plot of a third-rate detective novel."

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., had a different take: "Calling the folks who did or allowed or participated in this Keystone Kops is an insult of the grossest sort to the original Keystone Kops."

Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., took Dingell's objection into account. "The evidence we've seen shows that this investigation is part 'Keystone Kops,' it's part 'Mission: Impossible,' and perhaps part of 'All the President's Men' all tied together," he proposed.

Perhaps, but it put Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., in mind of "Hogan's Heroes." "HP may be suffering from Sgt. Schultz syndrome," he diagnosed, referring to the rotund concentration-camp guard remembered for the refrain "I know no-thing!"

As they probed HP in the Rayburn Building, lawmakers argued among themselves about whether pretexting — using a phony identity to gain access to personal records — is actually illegal.

Or, as Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, put it: "Pretexting is pretending to be somebody you're not to get something you probably shouldn't have to use in a way that's probably wrong."

The lawmakers were united in wondering why a bill making pretexting illegal, which the committee passed unanimously five months ago, still hasn't been taken up by the full House.

Back in the Rayburn Building, lawmakers hurled epithets at the HP executives who had used subterfuge to get phone records.

"Unacceptable," said Rep. Edward Whitfield, R-Ky.

"Horribly offensive," added Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.

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"Gross stupidity," submitted Dingell.

"Mr. Chair," observed Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, "we're all disturbed in our own unique way."

The HP executives and their collaborators responded in their own unique ways, too. Ten of them took the Fifth and were led from the room in a hail of camera fire. Those who did talk pleaded ignorance.

"I relied on the expertise of people in whom I had full confidence," said Patricia Dunn, the former chairwoman.

"We were not involved in the conduct," said HP's outside lawyer Larry Sonsini. "I was not even aware of them."

"I did not supervise this investigation," said Dunn.

"I had no knowledge of the methodologies," said Sonsini.

"I had no staff," said Dunn.

"I learned of it after the fact," said Sonsini.

Dunn noted she was advised by "batteries of experts" that the methods used to obtain the telephone records were legal, prompting Walden to retort that those experts were now looking for work.

"I'm one of them," Dunn said to laughter in the room.

HP's best defense, in the end, was blaming Congress.

"A positive outgrowth of the recent troubles at Hewlett-Packard would be passage of legislation governing such conduct," Sonsini said, noting he had told HP its pretexting "was not specifically unlawful."

"Based on my experience," Dunn suggested, "I hope that Congress will help companies like HP ... by establishing bright-line laws in this area."

The lawmakers acknowledged they were part of the problem. "Currently, the law regarding pretexting is ambiguous," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., an author of the languishing legislation.

"It isn't just a leadership failure at HP; there's been a leadership failure in the GOP," added Inslee, the other author. "HP leadership may look back up here to GOP leadership and say: How come you're not moving this bill?' "

To that question, nobody in the room offered an answer.

Dunn's reply to Walden provided by Reuters.

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