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Federal prosecutors notched the first guilty plea in Hewlett-Packard’s boardroom spying scandal on Friday after a private investigator pleaded guilty to identity theft and conspiracy in connection with the company’s controversial investigation into boardroom leaks.
Bryan Wagner, 29, who was charged with two federal felony counts on Wednesday, admitted that he illegally obtained the social security numbers and private telephone records of two journalists and two former HP board members and their family members as part of a plea deal.
He faces up to five years in prison on the identity theft charge and up to two years in prison on the conspiracy charge.
Mr Wagner’s plea bargain is likely to increase the pressure on Patricia Dunn, HP’s former chairman, and other defendants facing similar state charges over the scandal.
“He is co-operating,” said Daniel Richman, a professor at the Fordham University law school in New York who specialises in white collar crime. “This certainly increases the pressure on the other defendants.”
Ms Dunn and the other defendants have pleaded not guilty to state charges of fraud and conspiracy. They are not facing federal charges.
Andrew Levander, a white collar defence lawyer in New York, said Mr Wagner’s plea “appeared to be a typical bottom-up white-collar investigation in which the prosecutors hope that the plea of a low-level person will lead to a domino effect” that could ultimately tie others to the crime.
Mr Wagner’s lawyer told the Bloomberg news service on Friday that California prosecutors had agreed to reduce his state charges to one misdemeanour count.
Revelations that operatives working on behalf of the HP board used false pretences to get telephone records, engaged in physical surveillance of board members and journalists, and used other dirty tricks as part of their leak investigation led to the resignations of Ms Dunn and other HP officials last year.
The scandal culminated in September, when Mark Hurd, HP’s chief executive, was summoned to testify on Capitol Hill along with Ms Dunn; Ann Baskins, HP’s former general counsel; and other current and former HP officials.
Last month, HP agreed to pay $14.5m to settle civil claims arising from the scandal.
Ms Dunn has vowed to fight the charges against her.