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They're big, but not big enough to fess up

"Sir, I do not accept personal responsibility for what happened."

- Patricia Dunn, ousted Hewlett-Packard chairwoman, testifying before a congressional committee.

When I grow up, I want to be a big shot at a giant corporation where the pay is big and the idea that any top executive is actually responsible for anything seems to have gone the way of dodo bird.

There's certainly no lack of opportunity lately, judging from the long line of CEOs, chairmen and other elites who have raised their hands so solemnly before congressional committees and said "not my fault" or claimed the bad stuff always happened on somebody else's watch.

This corporate theater is getting old. Like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, we're watching the same scenes over and over again.

You can't make the megabucks, you can't enjoy the aristocracy of the Fortune 100 lifestyle and then plead ignorance or the Fifth Amendment.

The Hewlett-Packard snooping-gone-wild crisis, which Capitol Hill likened last week to Watergate and Enron, is distressing because Silicon Valley's HP has long boasted a corporate culture seemingly a notch above the norm.

Give some small credit to Patricia Dunn, the ousted chairwoman of HP, for stepping down. But in testimony, she joined the ranks of so many executives before who have wiggled and squirmed their way out of any admissions of guilt.

"If I knew then what I know now, I would have done things very differently," Dunn told the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday.

At one point, Dunn was pressed by one committee member, Republican Cliff Stearns of Florida, for a simple response: "Do you think that you have any culpability in this whole fiasco? Just yes or no."

"Sir," Dunn said, "I do not accept personal responsibility for what happened."

What happened, of course, started with an internal inquiry by HP of information leaks from the company boardroom to the media. But the probe snowballed. One outside investigation firm that was hired morphed into layer upon layer of subcontracted private investigators, all trying to do the computer-and-printer maker's bidding by prying into personal phone records.

The method involved lying by pretending to be someone else in order to extract what should have been private phone information. That deceptive technique is called pretexting.

Three private investigators from Florida were hired to dig for personal records for HP. One of those, Cassandra Selvage of Eye in the Sky Investigations in Spring Hill, may deserve an Oscar for best feigned naivete when asked by Times reporter Kris Hundley why she was subpoenaed to testify on HP.

"They're paying for the flight and I've never been to Washington before,'' Selvage responded. "I'm taking my camera. It will be like a vacation."

When all three investigators were called before last week's congressional panel, they refused to answer questions and asserted the Fifth against self-incrimination.

"Where did the buck stop?" asked Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., clearly frustrated by the lack of candor from the HP witnesses. "We don't have anybody who says, 'Yes, indeed, I was in charge.' "

What a familiar refrain.

When Ken Lay, the former chief of Enron, was called to explain how such outrageous corporate fraud took place under his nose, he argued he stayed above such details.

When ex-WorldCom chief Bernie Ebbers, who last week began his 25-year sentence for his role in a major accounting fraud, was asked by investigators how he allegedly missed such a scam, he claimed he was little more than the high school gym coach he once was.

Certainly one of the more infamous corporate performances of denial before a congressional inquiry belongs to James Johnston, a former CEO of RJ Reynolds Tobacco, who in 1994 swore under oath that cigarettes and nicotine were not addictive.

Maybe corporations like Hewlett-Packard or Enron or WorldCom are just so big that nobody really is in charge. Are global businesses complex miniworlds that exceed the grasp of their managers?

It's common practice for federal regulators such as the Securities and Exchange Commission to rap the knuckles of corporations, which typically pay some penalty but never admit guilt. Company X "settled with the SEC without admitting nor denying wrongdoing'' is the modern boilerplate.

It leaves an unfortunate message for the next generation.

As reported in Economist magazine, business schools are trying to teach stronger ethics, but they are awash in cheating. In a report to be published in the Academy of Management Learning and Education, professors from Penn State's Smeal College of Business, Rutgers Business School and Washington State University College of Business found that 56 percent of business school students admitted to cheating one or more times in the past academic year.

The report found that students said rules and the threat of punishment did little to influence their behavior.

Students assumed others cheated. So they did in order to remain competitive.

At last week's congressional inquiry, Dunn essentially offered a similar line of me-too reasoning. She hinted corporate America was well acquainted with deceptive snooping, including pretexting.

"I believe these methods may be quite common at companies around the country," she said.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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