Kara Swisher

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Exclusive: Yahoo Director in Charge of Botched CEO Vetting to Step Down From Board

CSLie has claimed its first victim, although the mystery is still unsolved.

Patti Hart — the Yahoo director in charge of the search that resulted in the hiring of Scott Thompson as its CEO, making her directly responsible for a clearly botched vetting of his academic record — will not stand for re-election to the board at the next annual meeting, according to sources close to the situation.

Hart — who is CEO of International Game Technology, which makes electronic gaming equipment and systems products — is resigning. Apparently, said sources, her own board asked her to remove herself from the Yahoo mess to better focus on the company she actually runs.

But she is perhaps just a few steps ahead of being pushed, given her key role in the hiring of Thompson, who was president of eBay’s PayPal payments unit when he cold-emailed Yahoo director and Intuit CEO Brad Smith seeking the job.

A Yahoo spokesman declined to comment.

[UPDATE: Yahoo confirmed the inevitable departure later in the day and said the Yahoo board would have nine members going forward. Hart also released a statement, confirming the move.]
Hart, who came to the Yahoo board in 2010, has been head of its corporate governance and nominating committee.

The departure makes her the first casualty — but definitely not the last — of the controversy over how a fake college degree managed to get in Yahoo’s regulatory filings via Thompson’s inaccurate bio.

The issues around how Thompson was hired — including how background checks on him failed to discover that he never got a CS degree from the Boston area’s Stonehill College, as his longtime bio on eBay had claimed — are part of a new investigation by the board.

That will be officially announced later today, along with the hiring of an outside law firm to conduct the probe, which will be headed by independent director Fred Amoroso.

[UPDATE: Yahoo officially said it was forming a special committee to look at Thompson's bio snafu and the circumstances around his hiring. Along with Amoroso, the other members are John Hayes and Thomas McInerney, independent directors who joined the board in April.

"The special committee and the entire Board appreciate the urgency of the situation and the special committee will therefore conduct the review in an independent, thorough and expeditious manner," a statement from Yahoo said.

Interestingly, the statement did not include a show of support for Thompson, which often happens in such circumstances.]

They will have a lot to investigate. Such as this mystery: Thompson’s correct bio appeared in filings eBay made with the Securities and Exchange Commission, while Yahoo’s similar documents were inaccurate about his educational credentials.

Also under scrutiny: How the falsehood was added to Thompson’s public resume, and who put it there; why Thompson never noticed the error, there since at least 2004; why he declined to correct it when asked directly about it; and who at Yahoo might have known about the problem before the hiring.

It’s a basic case of who, what, where, when and how. And, most of all, why anyone would make such a dumb mistake.

Hart would seem to have all the answers to that, along with a forensic firm that worked on the vetting. Key Yahoo staffers were also involved, said sources, although its headhunting firm on the CEO search, Heidrick & Struggles, was not used in relation to Thompson.

Presumably, there is a paper trail of some sort, which was the subject of a legal demand by activist shareholder Daniel Loeb of Third Point yesterday. He uncovered the bio error last week, in the middle of pressing a proxy fight to garner board seats.

Loeb’s allegations also nailed Hart in much-less-egregious padding of her own college record, making it appear as if she had economics and marketing degrees. She has one in business administration, with “specialties” (Yahoo’s ridonkulous word, not mine) in economics and marketing.

While Hart’s leaving might assuage some, providing a convenient scapegoat to the bizarre situation, this is by no means over for Yahoo or Thompson.

Another increasingly potent issue is the ever-declining morale at the Silicon Valley Internet giant over the company’s odd response — it initially called the bio problem an “inadvertent error,” without further explanation — and also Thompson’s lack of transparency on the issue.

He released an email to employees last night, apologizing for the “distraction” of the resume issue, but not for the error itself.

That, and other of Thompson’s actions — he has been described to me, by many close to the situation, as defiant over the issue, and as blaming Loeb for conducting a personal vendetta — did not sit well with many, both inside and outside Yahoo.

A Yahoo spokeswoman told me earlier this week that there is much support for Thompson internally and externally, but declined to provide specifics.

But message boards I read were mostly negative about him, as are a plethora of direct emails to me on the situation. One clever commenter on this site bemoaned that Thompson might get off “Scott-free.”

Ouch! Nonetheless, the atmosphere at Yahoo is indeed unsettled.

“Sentiment from employees is unanimous that he must go,” said a Yahoo employee, who has no personal agenda that I can grok, in a common refrain. “He clearly knew and lied for years; and his handling since exposed has been unacceptable.”

Unacceptable or not, though, Hart is the only one going for now. But stay tuned.

Until then, here’s an appearance I made today on WSJ.com to talk about Hart’s departure:

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— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google