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Hewlett-Packard scandal latest high-profile target for California state attorney

Hewlett-Packard scandal latest high-profile target for California state attorney

State Attorney General Bill Lockyer had a reputation for going after the biggest targets even before he filed criminal charges in the Hewlett-Packard Co. spying scandal.
Lockyer, a Democrat running for state treasurer next month, already went after the Bush administration and the world's largest automakers. But the case against five HP insiders and detectives on charges of violating state privacy laws could be one of his most daunting cases yet, legal experts said.
One of the chief challenges could be proving that deep-pocketed, high-profile defendants in the case _ ousted HP Chairwoman Patricia Dunn and former ethics chief Kevin Hunsaker _ knowingly sanctioned illegal tactics. The former executives claim they relied on HP lawyers to approve the probe.
Dunn, Hunsaker and outside investigators _ Ronald DeLia, Matthew DePante and Bryan Wagner _ are charged with four felonies each for their roles in the ill-fated attempt to plug boardroom leaks to the news media.
The detectives used a form of subterfuge known as "pretexting" to secure personal information on HP directors, employees and journalists.
While Lockyer's office has fought corporate crooks and shaped environmental and consumer protection policies through litigation, some legal experts say the HP case thrusts it into the somewhat unfamiliar arena of the bare-knuckle criminal trial.
"The AG's office doesn't prosecute that many individual criminal cases," said Robert Weisberg, a professor at Stanford Law School. "This is going to be fought at the street level of the criminal courts, and the AG's advantages don't really apply there."
Lockyer's best-known crusade has been against a slew of energy companies, including Enron, that he accused of gouging Californians during the state's energy crisis in 2000 and 2001. His office says the campaign has secured $5 billion in settlements so far.
Lockyer remains engaged in several other high-profile legal entanglements.
Last month, he sued the six largest U.S. and Japanese automakers claiming their vehicles have caused millions of dollars in damage by releasing gases contributing to global warning. It's the first time a state has sought monetary damages over global warming.
He is also waging a campaign against Big Oil, subpoenaing documents from California refineries and deposing top executives to determine if they manipulated markets to earn fat profits.
The Bush administration is also a target: Lockyer has sued over its policies on fuel economy standards and logging in national forests.
But the HP scandal catapults the former lawmaker into the spotlight at a fortuitous time for him politically: California voters will go to the polls next month to decide whether he should be elected to state treasurer.
Some experts have speculated that Lockyer quickly filed the HP case to gain an election advantage against his lesser-known competitor, Board of Equalization member Claude Parrish.
Lockyer's office denies that the case is politically motivated. Spokesman Tom Dresslar said Lockyer has a long-running investigation into "pretexting" _ the practice HP-hired detectives used to secretly obtain private telephone call records. He filed suit in March against a Florida data broker accused of selling confidential cell phone records.
"Anyone who criticizes Lockyer for pursuing this case for political reasons does not understand current political reality in California, and shows a complete disregard, a complete ignorance of Lockyer's record as attorney general," Dresslar said.
In the HP case, all three investigators have agreed to surrender in California next week and are scheduled to appear in Santa Clara County Superior Court on Oct. 10 to set arraignment dates, the AG's office said Friday.
Dunn appeared in court Thursday and signed a promise to appear at a Nov. 17 arraignment. She was later fingerprinted, photographed, booked and released.
Hunsaker also surrendered and was booked and released. His arraignment is scheduled for Dec. 6.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press before the charges were filed, Lockyer said the HP scandal illustrates the need to reform "the illegal subculture of identity theft and information stealing" that he said is pervasive.
"This case is a metaphor for lots of problems that go on in this electronic age," he said. "There's only some irony that it comes out of Silicon Valley, where the technology was invented."
Some legal experts said Lockyer is taking a risk in bringing the case because the state law doesn't yet directly address pretexting.
The practice will become a criminal offense Jan. 1 in California under a law signed last week by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican. But the law will not retroactively apply to the HP investigation.
Jean Rosenbluth, a former federal prosecutor and a law professor at the University of Southern California, said Lockyer's biggest obstacle will be overcoming the army of highly paid defense lawyers hired by some of the defendants.
"These people are very wealthy and have an unlimited amount of money to throw at the best lawyers out there," she said. "And the government can't do that."


Updated : 2021-08-03 03:30 GMT+08:00