REDWOOD SHORES, Calif. -- With an estimated $47 billion personal fortune, Oracle Corp. Chairman Larry Ellison will never be mistaken for a humble civil servant.
But the software executive did his best Wednesday to depict his company's spying campaign against rival Microsoft Corp. as a public service.
''I feel very good about what we did,'' Ellison said Wednesday as he defended Oracle's hiring of Investigative Group International Inc., which looked at trade and policy groups that publicly supported Microsoft during its landmark federal antitrust trial.
''What we were doing was exposing Microsoft's own little Watergate,'' Ellison said. ''We are just the guys that caught the other guys in a break in.''
Microsoft didn't deny connections to the groups, but said the spying was another example of how Oracle and other competitors have tried to tarnish its image. The company called Oracle's behavior ''hypocritical,'' because Oracle has funded or supported groups critical of Microsoft.
''The only thing more disturbing than Oracle's behavior is their ongoing attempt to justify these actions,'' Microsoft spokesman Greg Shaw said.
Ellison said the detective work showed Microsoft paid the Independent Institute of Oakland, Calif., and the National Taxpayers Union of Arlington, Va., to influence public opinion in Microsoft's favor.
The spying allegedly included a $1,200 offer to janitors to look at the trash of the Association for Competitive Technology, a trade group.
''Some of the things our investigator did may have been unsavory. Certainly from a personal hygiene point they were. I mean garbage ... yuck,'' Ellison told reporters at Oracle's headquarters.
But he said he had no problems with the overall investigation -- including the fact that Oracle had leaked its findings to selected media outlets for more than year.
The squabble is the latest chapter in the nasty rivalry between Ellison and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates.
Oracle stock soared as Microsoft's stock languished in the face of the government's efforts to break up the company. Gates, who is worth about $60 billion, is the only man richer than Ellison, according to Forbes magazine.
Ellison said he has only talked to Gates once in the last several years, but had a message for his rival Wednesday: ''It's nothing personal.''
''It just a great competition between Microsoft and Oracle. They are the No. 1 software company in the world and we want to be No. 1,'' he said.
Josh Greenbaum, a Berkeley, Calif. software consultant who has followed Oracle for more than decade, said the company's conduct ''is a little shocking because it brings back memories of the dirty tricks that have brought down presidencies. It really speaks to the bitterness of the competition against Microsoft.''
Oracle hired the detective agency last year to investigate the Independent Institute after it placed full-page newspaper ads defending Microsoft. The New York Times later reported that the ad was paid for by Microsoft.
The taxpayers' union issued a study blaming the antitrust case -- which Microsoft lost and has appealed -- for a loss in value of state pension funds. The Wall Street Journal reported that the group had received funding from Microsoft.
Rob Latham, a spokesman for the Independent Institute, said the nonprofit group never tried to hide its connections to Microsoft and has criticized federal antitrust laws for more than a decade. He said Microsoft has been involved with the institute only for two years.
Ellison said he was unsure how much money Oracle paid IGI for the investigation.
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