Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

Former CEO Thompson Might Be Gone, But Internal Investigation Into ResuMess Still a Hot Potato at Yahoo

While former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson fades from the tech scene — besides getting jacked from the top job at the Silicon Valley Internet giant, he’s also just come off two tech boards he had served on — the investigation over his hiring and how a fake computer science degree got into the company’s regulatory filings continues.

While the quick-fire controversy burned Thompson, as well as now former Yahoo director Patti Hart, the special committee of independent board members is still at work trying to figure out how such a mess was made in the first place.

And, more importantly, who knew what when and told whom.

At the time the committee was announced, Yahoo said it would “conduct a thorough review of CEO Scott Thompson’s academic credentials, as well as the facts and circumstances related to the review and disclosure of those credentials in connection with Thompson’s appointment as CEO.”

The special committee is chaired by Yahoo’s new Chairman Fred Amoroso and includes John Hayes and Thomas McInerney, two independent directors who joined the board in April.

Yahoo also hired independent counsel Terry Bird of the law firm Bird, Marella, Boxer, Wolpert, Nessim, Drooks and Licenberg in Los Angeles to handle the inquiry.

The company also noted at the time that “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. The Board intends to make the appropriate disclosures to shareholders promptly upon completion of the review.”

Gripped by urgency myself, I have grown weary waiting by the phone for some official answers, which sources said will not be forthcoming for some time.

But since I am the most curious of cats — uh-oh! — I started dialing around on my own to find out what’s what.

And, according to sources — especially since Thompson has settled with Yahoo and will not get severance due to the academic falsehood — the big focus is now centering on if the company’s staff screwed up the background check of his academic credentials, thus allowing it to get into its official filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission and also on Yahoo’s corporate Web site.

When Thompson was hired from eBay, where he was president of its PayPal payments division, the online commerce company had the correct bio information in its SEC filings, although not on its Web site or in its PR materials.

The question is: Did someone from Yahoo simply rely on Web bios and not check eBay filings and did anyone ever re-check Thompson’s college records? (Note: It took me 15 minutes flat to find out he did not have such a degree at Stonehill College in the Boston area.)

If lazy checking was the case, it spells rank incompetence on the part of staffers, as well as Hart, who headed the search after Yahoo fired its previous CEO Carol Bartz last fall.

A much more troubling line of inquiry taking place is aimed at the possibility that someone at Yahoo did discover the discrepancy in Thompson’s resume and either did not report it up the chain of command or did and it was either lost or ignored or, well, worse.

While this certainly ain’t Watergate, such a situation would be very hard for Yahoo to explain away as easily to shareholders, especially potentially litigious ones. As it is always said, the coverup can often be more damaging than the crime itself.

And, if it is determined by the special committee that certain employees knew of Thompson’s resume inaccuracy, it will most certainly result in dismissals of Yahoo employees.

The focus on the committee — which truly cannot sweep this under the rug, if it occurred in this much more serious scenario — is most obviously the legal department of Yahoo, which is responsible for making certain filings are accurate.

Also under scrutiny is the quickness of the hiring of Thompson.

Among the questions is how much vetting was done and whether adequate questions about him were asked among a variety of possible sources.

When he was picked in January, Thompson was a dark-horse candidate for many, including some Yahoo board members.

In fact, he was not on the initial headhunting lists prepared by outside talent search firm Heidrick & Struggles.

That’s because Heidrick had placed Thompson at eBay in mid-2000 and could not then recommend him to Yahoo. As it turned out, Thompson took it upon himself to cold email Yahoo board member and Intuit CEO Brad Smith about the job, who then passed Thompson’s interest to Hart.

Heidrick had no involvement in the checking of Thompson, although he later blamed the firm in a public meeting with Yahoo employees for putting the error in his bio in the first place from when he was hired at eBay. Heidrick quickly called the accusation “verifiably not true” in a memo to its own employees.

Sources said that meant that the firm had a resume that Thompson had submitted to it that also contained the error.

But the central mystery of how that mistake appeared on his bio will likely remain just that without further explanation from Thompson.

In a radio interview in 2009, he did not correct a specific question about the twin degrees he appeared to have held and seemed to even agree with the show’s host, Moira Gunn, about them.

Later, she told me in a video interview that Thompson had clearly indicated to her in the prep for that interview that he indeed had a computer science degree.

Still, it is still not clear — and may never be — who put the faux computer science credential on his resume in the first place.

So, with all apologies to Winston Churchill: It might remain a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work