It may not be worse than those of other years, but there's no denying the silly season of 2010 is very much upon us. Let's just hope the creepy peccadilloes of Viacom Inc.'s Sumner Redstone and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Mark Hurd serve as bookends.
Redstone's creepiness entered the public's consciousness in July, when the longtime mogul tried to bribe former Deal reporter and current Daily Beast correspondent Peter Lauria into giving up a source for a seven-week-old story. Redstone did so through a phone message, promising Lauria he'd be "well rewarded and well protected" if only he'd sing.
Lauria's original story, already forgotten by then but soon to be riotously revived, concerned Redstone's inexplicable interest in an unknown girl band called the Electric Barbarellas. This interest was such that Viacom's 87-year-old executive chairman, who holds the same title at CBS Corp., tried setting up the female group of 20-somethings with a reality show produced by Viacom's MTV Networks.
Problem: The Electric Barbarellas' failure to impress MTV executives reportedly prompted Redstone to overrule his own management team to obtain a pilot for the girl band. End of story until, well, Lauria posted Redstone's voicemail on his employer's blog almost two months after the original story ran.
This was the voicemail not only beseeching Lauria to sing but also bestowing the Electric Barbarellas with abilities too sublime for The Daily Beast to comprehend. "Your story said the girls have no talent," Redstone complained in his phone message. "Obviously, intentionally or not, the story was false."
Only then did the story get legs. And they soon grew to be longer than those on any of the 20-something band's members, especially after additional revelations had Redstone gifting at least one Electric Barbarella with a significant amount of Viacom stock.
Bribing reporters? Handing out stock as if it were candy? Even we of the just-the-facts school of business reporting wondered if Viacom's long-slumbering board might awaken to administer a little corporate governance.
But no, we were told. There was no need for disciplinary action. Redstone's self-admonishments were sufficiently severe, a spokesman said, to allow Viacom's other directors to turn a blind eye.
They turned a deaf ear, too. But now, given all the noise about Hurd's recent ouster as HP chairman, president and CEO, it's conceivable the corporate-governance community could force Viacom's board to rethink Redstone's recklessness.
Granted, Redstone was never charged with sexual harassment. By the same token, however, an internal HP inquiry cleared the 53-year-old Hurd of precisely those charges regarding his relationship with 50-year-old Jodie Fisher, the former actress who off and on served as an HP marketing consultant. So, on that score, consider them even.
As for the sexual-harassment claims Fisher brought against Hurd, who is married, they were settled out of court. And their terms included a stipulation that neither party would discuss the matter. But the stipulation clearly didn't extend to HP, which went public with the claims despite Fisher's public avowal that the pair "never had an affair or intimate sexual relationship."
We assume the Electric Barbarellas could, if asked, say the same about their relationship with the twice-divorced Redstone. Any inability to do so would warp even a libertine's sensibilities about what constitutes age inappropriateness.
The only issue left, then, is money: Hurd was found to have submitted $20,000 in expense reports that, according to HP, "intended or had the effect of concealing" his relationship with Fisher. It's worth noting that HP's use of "or" in this instance offers so much equivocation that Hurd could be incorrigibly corrupt, sloppily innocent or anywhere in between. Much less equivocal is the stock market's reaction to his ouster: a one-day haircut of $10.5 billion.
One wonders if the expense reports of Redstone or any mogul, for that matter, could withstand the same sort of scrutiny. Press accounts have Viacom's executive chairman blowing $500,000 just on plane fare for his favorite girl band. And though the accounts don't identify the source of those funds -- personal or corporate -- Hollywood pay and perks can be commingled to a degree that any such distinction is meaningless. Diplomacy, meanwhile, keeps us from speculating the direction of Viacom stock when Redstone makes his exit.
So if the silly season really is ending, it's going out with a bang. The saga at HP alone makes for such a compelling read even Viacom's directors seem likely to stop sitting on their hands -- if only to turn the pages.
Richard Morgan covers media for The Deal magazine.