Former Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) Chairwoman Patricia Dunn, who helped usher out one CEO and recruit another, before resigning in a scandal over a botched corporate investigation, has died after battling cancer for several years.
Dunn, 58, died at her Orinda home Sunday, according to a statement from her husband, who said she succumbed to ovarian cancer that first surfaced in 2004.
After rising from a secretarial job to become CEO of the money management firm Barclays Global Investors, Dunn joined the HP board in 1998 and became embroiled in a series of controversies that plagued HP in the mid-2000s, predating the company's more recent struggles with negative headlines and turnover in the executive suite.
Dunn led the HP board's efforts to negotiate the departure of the flamboyant CEO Carly Fiorina, after a divisive battle over HP's purchase of Compaq, and to recruit Fiorina's replacement, Mark Hurd, who was ousted last year in an unrelated scandal of his own.
But Dunn ran afoul of powerful board members and was asked to resign in 2006 over her role in the so-called "pretexting" case, in which HP investigators attempted to trace boardroom leaks by using false pretenses to obtain phone records of directors and reporters.
Dunn, who approved the leak probe as the board's non-executive chair, insisted she didn't realize the company's investigators were using unethical methods to obtain information.
"I relied on people with whom I had full confidence," she told members of a congressional subcommittee who called HP officials to testify about the case. "I deeply regret that so many people were badly let down by this reliance."
At one point, then-California Attorney General Bill Lockyer blamed Dunn for presiding over an episode in which "one of our state's most venerable corporate institutions lost its way." But some of her defenders argue that Dunn became the scapegoat in a case where others had equal or more culpability.
"She got a raw deal. She tried to do the right thing for HP," said Rob Enderle, a longtime HP observer and tech analyst at the Enderle Group.
"Pattie Dunn was outraged by the leaks that were going on. She supported doing an investigation," said Anthony Bianco, a journalist who authored a book about the case. But Bianco, whose book is entitled "The Big Lie," said he concluded Dunn was unaware of the pretexting tactics.
In a brief statement, an HP spokeswoman said Monday: "Pattie Dunn worked tirelessly for the good of HP. We are saddened by the news of her passing, and our thoughts go out to her family on their loss."
Often described as self-effacing but firm in her convictions, Dunn was the daughter of Las Vegas casino workers. She told interviewers that her family struggled financially after her father died when she was a teen.
Born in Burbank in 1953, Dunn worked her way through school at the University of Oregon and UC Berkeley, before graduating with a journalism degree. Her first job after graduating was a secretarial position at Wells Fargo Bank.
The job was meant to be temporary, but Dunn stayed on after becoming intrigued by the world of finance. Her husband, retired banker William Jahnke, noted that she rose through the executive ranks without a degree in business or economics. In a statement, he credited "her generous and gracious manner" and "her personal magnetism."
"It was an extraordinary career for her generation of executive women," said Bianco, who interviewed Dunn several times for his book. "It's unfortunate that what happened at HP eclipsed the rest of her career."
Dunn fought a series of battles with cancer while she was on the HP board. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, followed by diagnoses of melanoma and then ovarian cancer over the next three years. She had surgery and chemotherapy in 2006, in the midst of the pretexting scandal and as she was facing felony charges.
She later told an interviewer that she refused an offer to plead guilty to a misdemeanor, saying she wanted to clear her name while she was alive.
After leaving the HP board, Dunn was active in philanthropy with her husband, endowing a chair at UC San Francisco surgery department and funding clinical trials of cancer treatments at the University of Pennsylvania, where she also was a patient.
In addition to her husband, a brother and a sister, Dunn is survived by two daughters, a son and 10 grandchildren.
Contact Brandon Bailey at 408-920-5022; follow him at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey.