Feds Charge Investigator in HP Spying Scandal

In the latest development in the Hewlett-Packard boardroom spying scandal, U.S. Attorney Kevin V. Ryan on Wednesday filed criminal charges in San Jose, Calif., federal court against a private investigator accused of illegally accessing a reporter’s private phone records.

Bryan Wagner was charged with federal identity theft and conspiracy charges. Prosecutors are accusing him of using an unidentified journalist’s Social Security number to illegally access his phone logs over the Internet, according to the filings.

As part of his assignment to turn up evidence on the source of boardroom leaks to the media, Wagner also allegedly conspired to illegally obtain and transmit personal information about HP board directors, employees and journalists.

Stephen Naratil, Wagner’s defense attorney, was not immediately available for comment. HP was not immediately available to comment.

The Plot Thickens

Wagner’s woes follow former HP Chairwoman Patricia Dunn’s indictment for her role in the scandal. Three others, including HP Ethics Chief Kevin Hunsaker and two external investigators have already pled not guilty in California’s Santa Clara County Superior Court to charges of identity theft, conspiracy and fraud.

Wagner, however, is being charged in federal court. Specifically, the Littleton, Colo., resident is accused of using a reporter’s Social Security number to register an online account with a telephone company in order to access the reporter’s call records.

White collar criminal defense attorney William Keane, a partner with Farella Braun + Martel in San Francisco, is not surprised to see the U.S. Attorney’s Office charge Wagner.

“Mr. Wagner’s alleged use of a fake e-mail account and the Internet more readily raises federal criminal law issues rather than issues of state law. Certainly, alleged fraud over the Internet is a focus for the U.S. Attorneys’ office,” Keane, who was an assistant U.S. Attorney in Silicon Valley for six years, told the E-Commerce Times.

Wagner could serve up to five years in prison if he’s convicted on conspiracy, and a mandatory minimum of two years in prison if the jury finds him guilty of identity theft.

The Root of the Scandal

At the root of the controversy is using pretexting techniques to obtain the phone records of board members. Pretexting involves a third party posing as a telephone customer to obtain phone call records. While not illegal, the practice has come under fire from privacy experts. Earlier this year, the state of California sued Web-based firms that resold phone records obtained through pretexting.

Dunn pled not guilty to criminal charges in connection with the corporate spying scandal in November. Dunn reportedly authorized the surveillance of HP board members that led to the company’s decision not to renominate George A. Keyworth II to his seat on the board. HP said it discovered that he leaked confidential information that had appeared in the media.

In December, HP reached a US$14.5 million settlement with California’s Office of the Attorney General to establish a “Privacy and Piracy Fund” for law enforcement activities related to privacy and intellectual property rights.

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