What now for the Hewlett-Packard Four? You’ve already seen the headlines: Earlier this month, a Silicon Valley judge dropped all charges against former HP chairwoman Patricia Dunn and three other defendants in the HP pretexting scandal, in which news reporters and HP board members were spied on and impersonated as part of an ill-conceived effort to stop leaks to the media.

Three of the defendants will each do 96 hours of community service. Dunn, who has cancer, won’t. Case dismissed. Yes, it does sound like the fix was in. But unwinding this tangled web suggests that maybe it’s not so simple — just sad.

To recap what’s gone before: Last October, the California attorney general charged Dunn, Kevin Hunsaker, Ronald DeLia, Matthew Depante and Bryan Wagner with fraudulently obtaining confidential records, identity theft, accessing computer data without authorization and conspiracy.

The last guy on that list, Wagner, actually did the pretexting. He was an independent contractor in Colorado working for Depante, a manager at a Florida data-brokering company. Depante’s company was hired by DeLia, who runs a Boston security outfit that regularly did work for HP. DeLia reported to Hunsaker, HP’s chief ethics officer, who reported to Dunn. That’s the daisy chain of the conspiracy.

In January, Wagner pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy and wire fraud. The charges have a minimum sentence of two years in prison, but the judge may be lenient when Wagner is sentenced in June, because he’s cooperating with the feds.

This month, Depante, DeLia and Hunsaker tried to plead no contest to reduced charges of misdemeanor wire fraud. The judge rejected the pleas and instead proposed that if they made restitution and did community service within six months, he’d spike the charges. The same day, charges against Dunn were dropped because of her health problems.

Why the very attractive deal now? A cynic might notice that the original felony charges were filed by California attorney general Bill Lockyer during his campaign for state treasurer. Now, Lockyer has won his election, former Gov. Jerry Brown is the new attorney general, and the felony charges have evaporated.

So is it really over? No. HP has agreed to pay US$14.5 million to settle a civil suit filed by California. But at least one other lawsuit, filed against board members by an HP stockholder in September, is still pending.

And Depante, DeLia and Hunsaker still face potential federal charges, especially now that Wagner will testify for the feds. But U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan, who turned Wagner, is one of the eight federal prosecutors recently fired for what may have been political reasons. Whether his successor will pursue the case is up in the air.

What about Dunn, who launched this fiasco? The prosecutor’s office said charges were dropped because of her health: Since 2000, Dunn has been treated for breast cancer, skin cancer, ovarian cancer and a cancerous tumor in her liver.

Then again, the case against Dunn would be exceptionally hard to prove. There’s a paper trail showing that everyone up to Hunsaker knew about the illegal pretexting. But among hundreds of e-mails, reports, memos and notes turned over to investigators, no proof has turned up that Dunn knew about the pretexting.

And at least four different lawyers assured Dunn that everything being done in her leak investigation was legal. That’s the sort of thing that gives juries reasonable doubt.

Not so simple as the fix being in, is it? Just disgusting, nightmarish and sad, not least for all the people at HP who wish they’d never heard of the Hewlett-Packard Four.

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Hayes is Computerworld (U.S.)’s senior news columnist. Contact him at [email protected].

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