Former HP chairman admits "mistake" in sexism trial

Mr Ray Lane, former chairman of Hewlett-Packard. He testified on Monday during a sex discrimination trial involving his former employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, that he made a mistake in judgment involving the harassment of a female ven
Mr Ray Lane, former chairman of Hewlett-Packard. He testified on Monday during a sex discrimination trial involving his former employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, that he made a mistake in judgment involving the harassment of a female venture capitalist at the firm, and that he feared for the woman's safety. -- PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - One-time highflying tech executive Ray Lane testified on Monday during a sex discrimination trial involving his former employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, that he made a mistake in judgment involving the harassment of a female venture capitalist at the firm, and that he feared for the woman's safety.

Mr Lane, who previously served as executive chairman of Hewlett-Packard and president of Oracle, told the court he erred in not immediately informing others that Ms Trae Vassallo told him about unwanted advances by her colleague, Mr Ajit Nazre, during a 2011 business trip.

"I made a mistake," he said. "It was my mistake. I cared more about her feelings than anything else. I thought it should be her choice whether to tell others at the firm and start an investigation, he said.

Eventually, he would have taken action, but at the time, he suggested to Ms Vassallo that she think it over and discuss it with her husband, in part because he "feared somewhat for her safety." The firm did start an investigation after Ms Vassallo told more partners.

Ms Vassallo had complained that Mr Nazre tried to enter her hotel room at night, wearing a bathrobe and, Mr Lane said, holding a glass of wine.

Mr Lane told the court he worried Mr Nazre "could have pushed his way in" and the situation "could have gone in a different direction." Whether Kleiner reacted appropriately to allegations of sexism is at the heart of the suit, filed by former partner Ellen Pao.

The case, brought in 2012, helped spark a broad and ongoing discussion about gender issues in Silicon Valley.

In the suit, Ms Pao alleges she suffered discrimination and retaliation after Mr Nazre pressured her into an affair in 2006 that she soon ended. The discriminatory conduct eventually spread to other partners, leading her to miss out on a key promotion, she alleges.

After Ms Pao told Mr Lane about the affair in 2007, Mr Lane told her to consider marriage to Mr Nazre, she said in her suit. In court Monday, Mr Lane denied telling Ms Pao to marry Mr Nazre.

Mr Lane said Mr Nazre's bonus was cut that year as punishment for the affair.

Ms Vassallo, who testified in the case last week, said Mr Lane had told her to be "flattered" by Mr Nazre's advances.

On Monday, Mr Lane denied making that remark. Later on Monday afternoon, an independent investigator hired to look into Mr Nazre's actions testified that Ms Vassallo had told him Mr Lane did say that, but she believed he was joking.

The firm has vehemently denied Ms Pao's allegations. Kleiner's lawyer, Ms Lynne Hermle, said in court last week that the firm treated women fairly and did not promote Ms Pao because she lacked talent.

Ms Pao's attorney, Mr Alan Exelrod, said the firm systematically failed to promote women to senior investing partner. He said Ms Pao excelled at her work, lining up patent firm RPX, which raised $160 million in an initial public offering, as an investment.

Mr Lane joined Kleiner Perkins in 2000 after leaving software giant Oracle. He championed Fisker Automotive, which raised US$1.5 billion from Kleiner and others before declaring bankruptcy in 2013.

Mr Lane is now a partner emeritus at the firm. He backed start-ups run by several women while an investing partner, he testified Monday, and four women were recruited to the board of HP during his time as executive chairman of that company.