SAN JOSE, Calif. – Two former private investigators were each sentenced Thursday to three years of probation for their roles in an infamous Silicon Valley spying scandal in which prosecutors said they used false identities to access the Social Security numbers and other information on Hewlett-Packard board members, employees and journalists.
Joseph DePante, 66, and his son Matthew DePante, 33, also were ordered in U.S. District Court to undergo six months of electronic home monitoring as part of a plea deal after both pleaded guilty in February to conspiracy to commit Social Security fraud.
As weeping family members looked on, the father and son expressed remorse, even as their lawyers argued against home confinement, saying it would prevent their clients from earning a living.
Federal prosecutors have said tech giant HP hired the DePantes in 2005 to discover who was leaking boardroom information to journalists.
During the covert operation, HP and private investigators obtained confidential information on board members and employees as well as reporters for CNET, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Family members of reporters also were targeted, they said.
At the time it was an embarrassing scandal at one of the world's largest technology companies that was long considered an icon of corporate integrity and led to a federal investigation.
In court Thursday, veteran journalist Dawn Kawamoto said she was a victim and told the DePantes that she didn't believe they were remorseful.
"You clearly knew it was illegal what you were doing," said Kawamoto, who was a reporter at CNET when her information was compromised. "Six months of house arrest eating bon-bons on your couch and watching 'The Price is Right' is not a lesson."
Joseph and Matthew DePante aimed their 18-montth investigation against a total of 33 people as their firm earned as much as $30,000, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Kane said Thursday.
The DePantes were accused of using the illegal practice of pretexting — pretending to be someone else — to secretly secure copies of private telephone logs. Their firm directed other investigators who posed as account holders or phone company employees to illegally obtain personal information including phone and Social Security numbers, birth dates and call logs, authorities said.
The DePantes' former Florida-based firm, Action Research Group, was acting in good faith when it made its inquiries because Florida allows pretexting, Joseph DePante's lawyer, Susy Ribero-Ayala, argued on Thursday.
"He made a mistake here," Ribero-Ayala said. "He didn't set out to violate any laws. They all believed it was legal conduct."
District Court Judge D. Lowell Jensen said the DePantes' actions involved lying and reminded Ribero-Ayala that acquiring Social Security numbers illegally is against the law.
Kane said the elder DePante knew what he was doing and should stick to the terms of his plea deal.
"He has admitted to his knowing involvement in this conspiracy," Kane said. "Anything lower would not address the seriousness of his conduct. To say he is less responsible is a bit disingenuous."
Kawamoto told the judge the DePantes' actions caused enormous stress to her family and within her profession, as some sources would not work with her.
"As journalists, we're only as good as the people who return our calls," said Kawamoto, 51, who is now an associate editor at a technology news and job website.
In 2007, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge dismissed charges against then-HP Chairwoman Patricia Dunn in connection with the case. The judge's decision came after the state attorney general's office reduced charges against several other defendants, including Matthew DePante.
Matthew DePante told the judge Thursday that he began working with his father's business when he was 12 and did so throughout high school and community college.
"When we accepted this case, I never would've imagined I'd be standing before you six years later," DePante said. "I have shamed my family name."
The judge said he also remained open to the possibility of restitution for the victims and noted the case had helped spur passage of state and federal legislation specifically outlawing pretexting.
In addition, the state reached a $14.5 million civil settlement with HP in December 2006 intended to fund state and local investigations into privacy rights and intellectual property violations.