Hewlett-Packard scandal rife with corporate secrecy — and irony 

The swirling corporate scandal at Hewlett-Packard is so full of mystery and intrigue that no less than three state and federal agencies are investigating the decision by HP’s board to probe leaks to the media this year.

But lost in all the growing headlines is a small but pertinent story about the central player, HP Chairwoman Patricia Dunn, who in a face-saving move this week announced she was stepping down in January. Dunn, who oversaw the probe but said she was unaware of some of the tactics used — including the snooping of confidential phone records of HP board members and some reporters — has received most of the criticism.

So it will be interesting to see if the investigations bear her out, because Dunn should have a pretty good grasp on why such an inquiry would be a serious ethical and possibly legal breach. That’s because she had her heart set on being a reporter, which is why she pursued a journalism degree at UC Berkeley.

I know this because I interviewed Dunn several years ago when she was the chairwoman of Barclays Global Investors, which manages about $700 billion in assets from 1,500 government and corporate clients around the world. Dunn became one of the most powerful women in the financial world rather by accident — when she got out of college in the post-Watergate era, the country was so bursting with journalists that she couldn’t get a job.

Instead, she got a temporary secretarial job at Wells Fargo and in time became a portfolio manager, a trader, a marketing specialist and an investment banker. When her investment firm was taken over by Barclays, she eventually climbed to the top, running the world’s largest institutional investment fund.

She credited her rise to the help she received from a number of financial experts she met along the way, people who, she told me, "didn’t hold it against me that I wanted to be a journalist." And I’m only quoting from her previous comments because none of the board members at HP are talking directly to the press — the investigation has become a story of official statements released through corporate communications channels.

And that’s to be expected, unfortunately, from a group that went to great lengths to investigate its own board members after confidential information began appearing in the media two years ago. But spying on reporters certainly seems an odd course to be followed by anyone who proclaimed a love of journalism. (HP’s official stance is that it hired an unidentified outside consulting firm that used subcontractors to gain access to phone records by pretending to be those individuals.)

Dunn has maintained that she did not know about the techniques used to get access to the phone records and apologized last week to the reporters. But it seems those years spent in corporate boardrooms far from the world of news gathering may have affected her judgment.

And it’s somewhat ironic that HP is accused of snooping on journalists, because Dunn clearly loved to get press — good press, that is — and she wasn’t afraid to seek it out. The reason I decided to do a column about her several years back is a story I came across by a London financial correspondent, in which Dunn made a very un-CE0-like statement that got my attention for fairly obvious reasons.

"I would have to jump off a building naked to get any coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle," she told the writer. "And it wouldn’t be because I am a fund manager. It would be: Stupid Lady Jumps Off Building."

She later told me that she wasn’t really trying to get more attention, she was just trying to make a point about how the business press in the U.S. tends to focus on people who create wealth as opposed to those who just trade money to make profits. But it seemed clear to me at the time that she didn’t mind conjuring up a provocative quote when it suited her. For it only took one phone call to get the corporate press machine at Barclays running full tilt, providing a stylized background portfolio of Dunn and her considerable accomplishments.

The funny thing is, one of the original stories about HP that reportedly angered Dunn was on online news service CNET, in which an anonymous source talked about a confidential gathering of board members. But there was nothing inflammatory in the story — it was just viewed in-house as a breach of corporate secrecy.

Now the real story is out and the wagons are circling. And I doubt that Dunn is feeling a great love for her once-chosen profession these days.

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Ken Garcia

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