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Michael Hiltzik: The search for the bad guy at Hewlett-Packard

August 10, 2010 |  7:30 pm

It has been well said that what's really scandalous isn't what's illegal, but what's legal. By that token, in corporate America the real scandal may not be what's deemed unacceptable, but what counts as business as usual.

This thought comes to mind in the context of the Mark Hurd ouster at Hewlett-Packard, the topic of my Wednesday column. On Friday, Hurd was unceremoniously dumped as HP's chairman and CEO, based on allegations that he falsified up to $20,000 in expense accounts to cover up a relationship with an HP contract employee. Hurd disputes that. The allegation that gave rise to the expense report thing, which was a sexual harassment claim by the woman, was deemed by HP to be untrue.

Since then, HP's board has swanked around like the ultimate upholder of ethical integrity in the business community. Yet different boards interpret ethical standards in different ways. What about the board of McKesson Corp., a pharmaceutical wholesaler whose chairman and CEO, John H. Hammergren, is a director of HP.

McKesson disclosed a year or two ago that it was using an unusual formula to calculate the lump sum value of Hammergren's pension -- a formula that enhanced the value of his pension by $11 million, to $85 million, in one swipe. The standard formula used to calculate most pensions in the U.S., as it happens, is much stingier.

So while the HP board argues that its CEO should be held to the same disciplinary standards as all other employees, McKesson doesn't have a problem with treating its employees and top brass differently when it comes to compensation. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The column begins below:

About a year ago, in comparing Hewlett-Packard CEO Chief Executive Mark V. Hurd to his predecessor, the memoir-writing glamorpuss and novice political candidate Carly Fiorina, I wrote the following words:

“My guess is that Hurd won't be writing a personal memoir any time soon, and if he ever does it will be indescribably boring.”

At least as to the second half of that statement, I stand corrected. Or do I?

As followers of corporate highlights and lowlights have heard by now, Hurd’s extremely buttoned-down but financially prosperous reign at HP has blown out at the seams. On Friday, the company announced he was stepping down because of allegations of sexual harassment and improper expense reporting. The initial allegations came from Jodie Fisher, a contractor working with the CEO’s office as sort of a VIP host at executive events.

On the face of it, pretty weird and serious.

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik

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