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CEO'S CHAT-ROOM RANTS QUESTION TRUSTWORTHINESS

There is some irony in the final posting Whole Foods CEO John Mackey made under a pseudonym to a Web message board last August. "Congratulations to hubris and goodbye," its title read.

It was meant to be a signoff to Mackey's eight years of writing under the name "rahodeb," and his acknowledgment that he lost a bet with another chatter with the screen name "hubris12000" over the company's earnings and stock performance.

Today, it reads another way. Hubris, or excessive pride, by definition may turn out to be Mackey's fatal flaw. His arrogant and unethical chat room antics, where he trashed the competition and touted management, have damaged his reputation, and it could cost him his job.

This isn't just a case of an executive breaking from the overplayed corporate script and getting caught. Mackey went well beyond that with his Internet postings because he didn't disclose he was the company's CEO.

Any CEO who catches the chat-room bug should take note of how this plays out. In a matter of weeks, the talk about Mackey has shifted: He was the visionary entrepreneur who built the Austin, Texas, natural foods grocer into an industry powerhouse; now he's being called a sneaky and egotistical executive.

Under the screen name "rahodeb" - a play on Deborah, his wife's name - Mackey chimed in periodically on Yahoo Finance's Whole Foods message boards with posts dealing with everything from Whole Foods' earnings to his views on corporate governance. There were one-liners, and long, detailed remarks; he was inquisitive as well as defensive in his comments.

It isn't clear whether Mackey's comments ultimately violated laws. But that's not the point. When a CEO poses as someone else, talking at length about the company, its competitors and even its shareholders, it is time to question whether this executive can be trusted.

Investors have been very forgiving. The stock has been stable since all this has come out, and Wall Street analysts continue to support Mackey.

"The CEO's actions lack judgment, in our view, but we consider them immaterial. It has been the CEO's passion for the business that has made the company successful," JPMorgan Chase & Co. analyst Stephen C. Chick said in a report.

Still, investors should be pondering what this all means - and probing to see if there is more they should know about.

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