A San Jose judge today dropped the charges against former Hewlett-Packard board Chairwoman Patricia Dunn, who was accused of orchestrating a program to spy on Bay Area journalists and fellow board members, according to the AP.
Five other defendants in the case will avoid jail by pleading no contest to misdemeanors and performing community service.
The charges were dismissed by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Ray Cunningham who said Dunn’s fight with ovarian cancer was one factor that played into his decision to dismiss charges against her.
Another factor was the change in state attorney generals from Bill Lockyer to Jerry Brown. Defense Attorney Tom Nolan told Bay City News, “The new attorney general played a significant role.”
Jerry Brown defended his decision to offer plea bargains, saying in a statement quoted by Bloomberg News that pretexting “had become a widespread problem over the last several years. In the six months since the attorney general’s office first filed criminal charges in the HP case, the use of pretexting has dropped dramatically.”
Pretexting is a euphemism for when a private investigator poses as a phone customer to trick a phone company into releasing phone records. Phone companies usually require part or all of a Social Security number to release such information. The fraudulent use of another person’s SSN is prohibited by federal law.
Today’s action does not preclude the federal government from filing charges.
The door also remains open to civil suits that might be filed against HP by the reporters whose phone records were stolen or the reporters employers. The nine reporters targeted by HP were Peter Burrows, Ben Elgin and Roger Crockett of Business Week; Pui-Wing Tam and George Anders of the Wall Street Journal; John Markoff of the New York Times; and Dawn Kawamoto, Tom Krazit and Stephen Shankland of CNET’s News.com. Most of the reporters worked out of San Francisco bureaus.
Judge Cunningham’s actions come the same day that HP is holding its annual shareholders meeting in Santa Clara and a group of shareholders, led by the giant state pension fund CalPERS, is seeking reforms in how the company selects its board members. Dennis Johnson, CalPERS’ director of corporate governance, told the Chronicle that the HP the spying scandal was a factor in his organization’s decision to support the reform proposal.
For the history of the spying case, see Feb. 19 edition of The New Yorker.