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TV cameramen fixed their lenses on the entrance of downtown San Jose’s federal courthouse Friday morning, a sure sign that someone famous, perhaps infamous, was about to have a bad day. This time it was only Bryan Wagner, whose sole notoriety stems from his role as a lowly private investigator in the Hewlett-Packard pretexting scandal. Wagner pleaded guilty to conspiracy, wire fraud and related charges in front of U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel, making him the first to strike a deal with federal prosecutors. The agreement comes with a minimum of two years in prison, but Wagner can appeal anything beyond that, and his plea may lead to leniency when he is sentenced in June. In Fogel’s courtroom Friday, it seemed certain that the youthful 29-year-old with a high school diploma did not mastermind the scheme to impersonate and spy on HP board members, their family members, reporters who cover the company, and their families. It wasn’t clear what value such a low-level player in the scandal holds for U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan. Wagner’s plea came with a cooperation agreement that may hint at what he can offer prosecutors, but his attorney asked Fogel to seal the document. The judge said he’d rule on the request Tuesday. On Friday, the conviction seemed to demonstrate that Ryan’s office is moving on the HP leak scandal, which until now has been largely the province of the state attorney general’s office. Former Attorney General Bill Lockyer indicted Wagner and four others, including former HP board president Patricia Dunn, last October. “Some people were speculating that maybe the feds had washed their hands of this,” said Rory Little, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at Hastings College of the Law. “This suggests that no, it’s an active investigation.” Wagner’s plea deal means he now has double-jeopardy protection which, Little said, could force new state Attorney General Jerry Brown to drop charges. A Brown spokesman offered no official comment, and Robert Morgester, the deputy AG who filed Wagner’s indictment, could not be reached.

Follow all the coverage of Hewlett-Packard’s boardroom spying scandal � and the continuing legal fallout.

Following Wagner’s plea hearing Friday morning, defense attorney Stephen Naratil portrayed his client as a “classic dupe.” “He was assured by many people, including lawyers, that what he was doing was completely legal,” said Naratil, managing partner of a Benicia-based law firm called Summit Defense. Naratil wouldn’t name the lawyers who advised Wagner, but whoever they were, they were not working for HP, he said. Yet if Wagner was such a low-level participant in the pretexting scheme, what incriminating testimony could he possibly offer against higher-profile defendants, such as Dunn and Kevin Hunsaker, who was HP’s ethics director? “My client doesn’t know [Wagner] and had never heard his name until the charges came out in California,” Hunsaker’s lawyer, San Diego solo Michael Pancer, said, adding that he didn’t think the plea deal would affect his case at all. Looking ahead, one question Wagner’s plea deal raises is whether federal prosecutors will cooperate with the new attorney general. “As an expert in federal criminal law, I think it’s a shame whenever the state and federal authorities are not working together,” said Little, who practices at McDermott, Will & Emery. “There’s just no question that the two of them working together is better than one of them working alone.”

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