SACRAMENTO — Asking voters to disregard her shaky voting record and thin political resume, Meg Whitman has built her entire campaign for governor around the premise that she can do for California what she did for eBay, the e-commerce giant that exploded into a multibillion-dollar entrepreneurial force during her 10-year stint as CEO.
However, a less-than-flattering picture of her CEO days is emerging in a civil case taking place 3,000 miles away between eBay and online classifieds giant Craigslist.
Described in testimony as someone with an "evil" side who could be a "monster" to those who foiled her, Whitman is at risk of losing control of the carefully crafted powerhouse image that she has parlayed into a huge lead in the GOP primary race, political observers said.
"Any time you have a sticky legal situation with a candidate involved, it's not going to be a good day," said Patrick Dorinson, a political consultant and former spokesman for the state Republican Party. "A trial is an (opposition research) guy's dream."
The nasty charges stem from a dispute, now being played out in a Delaware courtroom, over eBay's 28 percent purchase of Craigslist stock during Whitman's tenure, in which eBay accuses Craigslist of trying to dilute its shares to 24 percent, stripping eBay of its seat on the company board.
Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster have accused Whitman and eBay of pilfering Craigslist's confidential subscriber list to create their own new competitor online classified operations.
On the witness stand, Buckmaster said that eBay official Garrett Price, who helped negotiate eBay's 2004 bid to invest in Craigslist, threatened him by describing "two Meg Whitmans." He had met the "good" Whitman earlier in 2004, when she was able to convince Buckmaster to agree to sell eBay a minority stake in Craigslist after Buckmaster initially had broken off negotiations.
There was also an "evil Meg," Buckmaster testified that Price had told him, "and that we would best be served if we got with the program, or we're going to meet the evil Meg."
Price, according to Buckmaster, added that Whitman could be a "monster" if things did not go her way.
It is the kind of testimony that fits right into the game plan for the campaign team of Steve Poizner, the state Insurance Commissioner who is running way behind Whitman in the GOP primary but has pledged to pour $15 million into the campaign as they head into the crucial months before the June 8 primary.
"This trial is revealing her character," said Jarrod Agen, spokesman for the Poizner campaign. "It's showing there's another side of Meg Whitman. Her time at eBay is what she's running on, but this shows there are flaws to her tenure. This is not a time to be running as a bullying CEO."
It is relevant, Agen said, because Republican voters are skeptical over their choices and want to know the Republican they choose "will be somebody they trust."
Price resolutely has denied the quote, saying in a statement that Buckmaster's comments were "false and malicious."
The Whitman campaign said that Poizner's campaign would be making a mistake if it tries to gain politically from what they call false testimony. The third Republican candidate, Tom Campbell, a former congressman from San Jose, has refrained from attacking either of his opponents.
"Nobody at eBay characterized Meg that way, and Steve Poizner knows it," Whitman's spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said. "Trying to use false statements for his own political gain doesn't just whiff of desperation, it's childish, and Californians deserve better."
Conservative commentator Matthew Cunningham, an editor for RedCounty.com, said that it will be tough to change the public's overall positive view of Whitman.
"I don't know if one lawsuit can hurt her," he said. "Voters know what happens in a trial, that there are a lot of charges and countercharges. They won't take everything at face value."
With the amount of money that Poizner said he is willing to put into his campaign, though, Whitman's image could take a beating, said Larry Gerston, a San Jose State political science professor. Whitman's cryptic response to her poor voting record, her reputation for keeping the media at a distance, and her refusal to engage in debates with her opponents, he said, will not help.
"The way she's been portrayed as so carefully managed and orchestrated," he said, "this could raise the question of why is she so controlled. What else is out there? They could remind people over and over. It might work."
Reach Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.