Hewlett-Packard on Thursday admitted that private investigators hired by its board had surreptitiously acquired the phone records of several journalists in an attempt to ferret out a suspected boardroom leaker.

The news came as Bill Lockyer, the California state attorney general, was quoted by the Bloomberg news service as saying that it appeared a crime had been committed when HP’s investigators engaged in “pretexting,” the act of impersonating a person in order to gain access to sensitive information. The investigators engaged in this activity to obtain personal telephone records of people they suspected were involved in the leaks.

“We are absolutely horrified that the records of journalists were accessed without their authorisation,” an HP spokesman said.

HP declined to reveal the number of journalists who had been caught up in the probe. It said it was cooperating with the state attorney general’s office.

An internal row over the board’s investigation tactics led to the sudden resignation of Thomas Perkins, the legendary venture capitalist and longtime HP board member, in May.

The dispute spilt into public view this week after HP disclosed in a filing to US regulators that Mr Perkins’s departure was related to an investigation that had named George Keyworth, another director and a longtime friend of Mr Perkins, as the source of the leaks. At the time of Mr Perkins’s departure, HP said only that he had not left in regard to a disagreement with the company.

Mr Perkins later wrote to HP’s board to complain that his phone records had been “hacked” by the company. In its filing this week with the SEC, HP acknowledged that its investigators had used pretexting to gain access to telephone records, but it said the practice was “not generally unlawful.”

Judy Muller, associate professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, said the fact that HP’s investigators had targeted journalists was “outrageous.” She drew a line between the HP case and recent government efforts to crack down on leaks to the press. “Reporters don’t seem to be off limits anymore,” she said.

Bob Steele an ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute, a journalism thinktank, said: “For HP investigators to improperly access the phone records of the journalists puts the truthseeking role of the journalists in jeopardy. Other confidential sources might back off from working with journalists if they have little or no confidence that their identities would be protected.

Although the use of pretexting to uncover sensitive financial information has long been considered illegal, there is no law that explicitly bans using the practice to aquire other information, such as telephone records. However, legal experts have said that the practice could fall foul of existing laws against computer hacking and identity theft.

Some governance experts have suggested that Patricia Dunn, HP’s independent chairman, may shoulder the blame for the controversy. Her decision to carry out an independent investigation into the press leaks has been criticised in governance circles.

The controversy comes as HP finds itself on the rebound following several years of lacklustre results under Carly Fiorina, former chief executive. The leaks in question dealt with the board’s deliberations over her performance.

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