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Discrepancies complicate sexual harassment claims against CEO

A former CEO of Hewlett-Packard has been accused of sexually harassing a contractor who worked for him, according to a letter ordered released by a court last week. In the letter from the woman's attorney, the executive is accused of kissing the woman, touching her inappropriately and trying to persuade her to have sex with him on multiple occasions.

Complicating matters, though, are several inaccuracies in the letter, as even the accuser herself admits. Although it's not clear what parts of the letter are inaccurate, the discrepancies have led to doubts about whether any sexual harassment occurred at all.

The letter seeking a settlement for sexual harassment was addressed from the woman's attorney to the CEO, and outlined several instances between 2007 and 2009 of attempts to initiate an affair. Dinners, hotel room visits and meetings in cities nationwide led to inappropriate touching and other advances, the attorney said.

The CEO, who resigned after a company investigation found him in violation of its standards of business conduct, was not found to have committed sexual harassment by Hewlett-Packard, and the woman herself said his behavior didn't hurt the corporation or its reputation. But the executive settled a sexual harassment lawsuit with the woman the week he resigned.

The Delaware Supreme Court ordered the letter unsealed as part of the evidence in a shareholder lawsuit against the company, which is based in Palo Alto, California. The lawsuit is investigating possible corporate wrongdoing in connection with the CEO's severance package, reported to be around $40 million.

The woman is an actress and former reality show contestant. She worked as a greeter at Hewlett-Packard events, where she was responsible for introducing key customers to the CEO. Her attorney's letter says she was nervous around the CEO because of his advances.

But emails from the woman to the CEO portray her as enthusiastic toward him, inquiring about his family and describing him as fun to work with.

Such inconsistencies have led an attorney for the CEO to state that there was never any sexual harassment to begin with. But if that's the case, what led the CEO to settle? The shareholders' suit against him may bear this out as it proceeds, but it's possible that only the woman and her former boss will know the truth.

Source: Bloomberg News, "Letter shows HP ex-CEO Hurd pursued sex with former contractor," Dec. 30, 2011

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