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California’s top prosecutor yesterday filed criminal charges against Patricia Dunn, Hewlett-Packard’s ousted chairman, and four others in connection with the computer maker’s controversial investigation probe into boardroom leaks.

The charges, expected for weeks, marked a low point in a spying scandal that has sullied HP’s reputation as a paragon of corporate virtue and thrown a spotlight on the shadowy world of company investigations.

The felony complaint filed by Bill Lockyer, attorney general, charged all five defendants with fraudulent wire communications, wrongful use of computer data, identity theft and conspiracy.

Mr Lockyer said the HP leak investigation was “a misguided effort”. “People inside and outside HP violated privacy rights and broke state law,” he said.

The four other defendants are Kevin Hunsaker, a former HP lawyer, and private investigators Ronald DeLia, Bryan Wagner and Matthew DePante.

Mark Hurd, chief executive, and Ann Baskins, who resigned as the company’s general counsel last week, were not charged but Mr Lockyer said the investigation remained open.

Ms Dunn’s lawyer said she was a victim of a “disinformation campaign”. In a statement, Jim Brosnahan of law firm Morrison & Foerster said: “These charges are being brought against the wrong person at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons. They are the culmination of a well-financed and highly orchestrated disinformation campaign.”

Calls to lawyers representing Mr Hunsaker and Mr DeLia went unreturned yesterday. HP said only that it was continuing to co-operate with state and federal investigators.

HP came under criminal investigation last month after the company admitted its operatives had posed as journalists, board members and employees to obtain private telephone records – a controversial and potentially illegal practice known as pretexting.

Ms Dunn was forced to step down as chairman amid mounting criticism of the investigation’s tactics, which extended far beyond telephone records to included physical surveillance and other questionable operations.

Events reached a climax last week as the scandal’s protagonists testified on Capitol Hill about their roles in the probe.

Ms Dunn said she was not responsible for what happened, saying she received repeated assurances that the methods being used by HP’s investigators were legal and part of an accepted array of methods.

News of the charges followed reports that Ms Dunn was preparing to undergo for treatment for cancer. Ms Dunn had previously stepped down as chief executive of Barclays Global Investors to fight cancer in 2002.

HP’s shares rose 1.6 per cent yesterday to $38.02 ahead of the announcement.

Separately, the New York Times reported on Thursday that Carly Fiorina, HP’s former chief executive, ordered an investigation in January 2005 into alleged contacts by board members with journalists.

Ms Fiorina, who was ousted in February 2005, is reported to have made the admission in her forthcoming book ‘Tough Choices’, which is due to be published next week.

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