HP on the Hill: The Buck Never Stops

The Hewlett-Packard folk testifying before Congress today passed the buck so many times, it should’ve been the trigger for some unlikely C-SPAN drinking game. Start with Larry Sonsini, who in an e-mail to board member Thomas Perkins had said he’d look into the matter, only, no he didn’t. He told House members that he’d merely asked HP’s legal folks (Ann Baskins, this buck’s for you) if they were within the law, and got a yes, and said so in an unofficial capacity without even knowing what “pretexting” meant.

Patricia Dunn, the chairwoman who took no responsibility for the scandal but resigned anyway, was amazingly disingenuous about the infamous project smeared with her fingerprints. Oregon Republican Greg Walden marveled to HP CEO Mark Hurd that e-mails showed Dunn involved in everything from resources used to the names of the two-part leak probe (Konas 1 and 2 — Dunn likes Hawaii), while saying her testimony put her involvement “at the 30,000-foot level.”

On the idea of using e-mail bait with a spyware hook to follow a News.com reporter to the suspected leaker, Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette called Dunn on an e-mail in which she praised the scheme as “clever.”

“I regret the use of the word ‘clever,’” Dunn said, not for the first time.

“Right,” DeGette nodded. “I’m sure …”

Dunn made a noise like chuckling, only without the happiness, and again passed on having any responsibility, or even the ability to figure out whether spying on people is uncool. “I did not see myself as the person appropriate to approve investigative methods,” she said.

This must’ve stuck in Walden’s craw. With Dunn consistently saying that, as the mere board chairwoman, not even an actual HP employee, she was more of … it’s hard to say. She was maybe sort of a cheerleader, but one not really watching the game.

“Who in senior management was responsible?” Walden asked.

“The last investigation was clearly under the auspices of Mr. Hunsaker,” Dunn said. (Mr. Hunsaker, this buck’s for you.)

“He was your counsel,” Walden agreed, but he wanted to know who had actual authority over the investigations and their unsavory techniques. “At some point the buck stops somewhere.”

Oh, how wrong you are, congressman. Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn picked up Walden’s quixotic pursuit of responsibility. Blackburn said she was “tremendously concerned” that there didn’t seem to be anyone in charge of the investigation who’d come forward and say they were in charge, were supposed to be in charge, and took responsibility for how the probe was conducted.

“I think some of those people have declined to testify,” Dunn replied, “and that’s frustrating for all of us.” (Paging Baskins and Hunsaker, you have a buck at the front desk …)

Walden and DeGette both came back to it later with Hurd, the CEO who’s now also the new board honcho. Hurd had a different tack. He blamed lots of people, generally, including himself, but no one so much they could actually be held accountable for it. Thus, he was passing bucks like Christmas bonuses.

“You had testified earlier that the rules broke down,” DeGette told him. “I see all these red flags in the organization that were never caught by anyone, at CEO level on down. I wonder, can you tell me how on Earth we had such a breakdown? … Why was it nobody in senior management at Hewlett-Packard caught any of these red flags?”

“I’ll speak for myself,” Hurd said. “I didn’t.”

“Why?” DeGette snapped.

“Some of it is attention to detail.” Hurd described HP as “a small city, almost” and said, “the CEO cannot be the backstop for all processes in the organization.”

Hurd picked up Dunn’s assertion that she bears no responsibility for the shady and possibly illegal activities. “If she had no blame … do you think it was Ann Baskins’ fault? Was she in charge?”

“Let me be clear,” said Hurd — apparently his favorite rhetorical flourish today. “I was in charge. We had a breakdown in multiple levels of the company; I’m responsible for the company. Responsibility goes across the entire company, congressman, including myself.”

In other words, I’m saying I’m responsible, but not that it was actually my fault. Or the fault of anyone, really, so much. There was just a “breakdown,” like a mechanical problem.

“Who made the decision that allowed [Kona 2] to go forward?” Walden asked. “We thought it was Ms. Dunn, but I got the impression she didn’t think so.”

Hurd’s answer was a bit weird, but he declined to let Dunn off the hook, calling her “the business owner of all that, using HP resources.”

This pretty much completed the circle of responsibility. Or musical chairs. Or hot potato. Three-Card Monty? Hurricane Kona had been an act of God, wild weather no one had seen coming. It was late in the afternoon, and the brief remainder of the session mostly involved congressfolk grandstanding for the camera (Washington’s Jay Inslee, Palo Alto’s Anna Eshoo, we’re lookin’ at you). Tomorrow the focus shifts off HP to the phone companies that fell so easily for the “pretext” lies. Hurd, Dunn and Sonsini can sigh in relief and wait for the whole thing to blow over.

Brian McDonough

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One Response to “HP on the Hill: The Buck Never Stops”

  1. Patricia Looney Says:

    I believe uncool is the keyword here. Really liked your article. Thanks.

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