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Times Public Editor Picks Wrong Target

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It is good that the New York Times has a "Public Editor" to keep an eye on the ethics of the paper. But sometimes this seems a bit like a make-work position and valuable column space is wasted chastising the Times' staffers for minor missteps. That was the case on Sunday, when Arthur Brisbane -- the current Public Editor -- took business columnist Joe Nocera to task for a conflict of interest around a piece he wrote on Hewlett-Packard's new CEO, Léo Apotheker.

Here's the back story. Apotheker is coming to HP from his job as CEO of SAP, a German software maker that recently admitted liability in a case where it stole a huge amount of intellectual property from Oracle. Apotheker wasn't CEO when this brazen crime was allegedly committed by SAP subsidiary TomorrowNow, but Nocera published a column on October 9 that suggested that "as a member of SAP's executive board, Mr. Apotheker clearly knew about the theft."

Nocera observed that Hewlett-Packard was engaged in shocking hypocrisy: First they fire CEO Mark Hurd for minor expense account padding and then they turn around to give the same job to someone who may have been involved in one of the biggest ethical transgressions seen in the software business in recent years.

What Nocera didn't reveal when he wrote his column was that his wife is communications director for the law firm that represents Oracle in its suit against SAP. This conflict was the subject of Brisbane's column. But Brisbane writes that he believes Nocera's excuse that he simply didn't know about the role of his wife's firm. Anyone who has ever been in a marriage with two busy people will also be inclined to trust Nocera's version of events.

So what did Nocera do that was terrible enough to be singled out for criticism in a 700-word column? He went on CNBC to talk further about the case. That was a mistake, and Nocera admits to Brisbane that it was "stupid" and he realized that during the show.

When his conflict emerged, Nocera should have gone silent about SAP. No question. On the other hand, a larger good was clearly served when Nocera went on television to draw more attention to this case. If it's true that Apotheker did know about the theft from Oracle, that's important news. Quite apart from HP's hypocrisy here, there is a bigger point at stake: Which is that, far from being held accountable for his alleged actions, Apotheker is getting a promotion that will make him an even richer man than he already is.

This episode offers a very disturbing window on corporate ethics and the lax punishment for wrongdoing in the private sector. While SAP will probably end up paying a large settlement to Oracle, you can pretty much guarantee that no individual will be held personally liable, for either civil or criminal penalties. As is so often the case with corporate misdeeds, crimes occurred here but apparently no actual people committed them. And now a figure that may well have known about these crimes is moving up the food chain.

Joe Nocera did a service by telling this ignored story. The Times was right to bring his conflict to light and complain about him going on CNBC. But he didn't deserve a public reprimand from the Public Editor. It would have been better to see those column inches used to question the ethics of the real villains in this case.