THE US software giant Oracle made the sensational admission yesterday that it had hired a firm of private detectives to discredit its arch rival Microsoft and undermine its efforts to fend off the government's anti- trust suit.
The announcement came after a flurry of office break-ins, computer laptop thefts, and attempts to buy off janitorial staff at consultancy firms associated with Bill Gates' company.
In what appeared to be a hastily orchestrated piece of damage control, Oracle admitted it had hired Investigation Group International to try to establish links between Microsoft and a number of supposedly independent consultancy firms, which had testified on its behalf in court. It insisted, however, that it had not sanctioned any illegal behaviour.
Oracle said it had ordered the investigation into two groups, the Independent Institute and the National Taxpayers Union, because it suspected they were not as impartial as they claimed. Evidence of their financial links to Microsoft subsequently appeared in The Wall Street Journal and other newspapers.
"In fact their work was funded by Microsoft for the express purpose of influencing public opinion..." an Oracle company statement alleged. "Left undisclosed, these Microsoft front groups could have improperly influenced the outcome of one of the most important cases in US history," it added.
However, the Oracle statement made no mention of a third group, the Association for Competitive Technology, which recently reported a woman investigator trying to obtain its rubbish by offering cash to its office cleaners. It also made no mention of a series of laptop thefts reported at yet another group, Citizens for a Sound Economy, whose links to Microsoft were subsequently written up in The Washington Post.
The Independent Institute has also complained of laptops going missing. Microsoft suffered a break-in at its Washington office earlier this month, although it has yet to determine if any important effects or documents were taken.
The Oracle statement said it did not stipulate how IGI should go about its investigations. "We did, however, insist that whatever methods IGI employed, those methods must be legal. IGI repeatedly assured us that all their activities were in fact 100 per cent legal."
The US business press, ever sensitive to the bitter rivalry between Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Oracle's chief executive, Larry Ellison, are delighting in what they are already describing as a Watergate-style scandal. Throughout the Microsoft anti-trust suit, Mr Ellison has taken the moral high ground, describing Mr Gates as a "convicted monopolist" and arguing for an aggressive company break- up to stem his power. "I think when someone breaks the law, he should be punished," Mr Ellison told The Independent in an interview in January.
Now, however, the pressure is on for Mr Ellison to demonstrate that he did not stray from the high ground himself. On top of the private investigation affair, The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that Oracle had hired a Washington public relations firm, Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter and Associates, to circulate damaging stories about Microsoft in the media. …