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Wal-Mart fires worker accused of snooping

Times Staff Writers

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said Monday that it had fired an employee for recording phone calls between its public relations staff and a newspaper reporter and for intercepting text messages.

The retailer said its employee was acting alone. The incident was the latest involving companies or their employees snooping on reporters’ sources.

In this case, Wal-Mart said an unnamed computer-systems technician was not authorized by the company to seek or obtain the information. The company also said it fired one manager and disciplined another for “failure to carry out their management duties.”

Wal-Mart said that from September to January, the technician recorded public relations staff calls with Michael Barbaro, who writes about Wal-Mart for the New York Times. Over the previous year, the newspaper ran stories about the company’s personnel policies, based on leaked employee memos.

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The company said the technician also intercepted text messages using equipment that searched for key words in messages sent within a several-mile radius of Wal-Mart’s Bentonville, Ark., headquarters.

“The company believes that these pager intercepts and the recordings of these telephone calls were wrong and has taken a number of actions to further strengthen our policies and controls,” Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of Arkansas confirmed an investigation. Wal-Mart said it had notified federal investigators in January.

Last fall, Hewlett-Packard Co. found itself in the center of a scandal about the increasingly aggressive tactics for investigating information leaks to the media.

Patricia C. Dunn, HP’s board chairwoman, resigned after reports that the company hired private investigators who illegally obtained telephone records of board members and reporters by misrepresenting themselves to telephone companies.

Five people associated with the investigation, including Dunn, later were indicted by the state and now face trial.

Wal-Mart distanced itself Monday from the actions of its employee. It would not comment on possible motives.

The company said it did not believe any laws were broken by the recordings because Wal-Mart notifies employees that it may monitor and record communications on company devices.

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Under federal and Arkansas law, only one party to a recording -- in this case Wal-Mart -- needs to consent. Wal-Mart declined to release the names of any employees involved.

Workplace experts say most employees know that their employers can monitor their activities at the office. But technological advances mean it isn’t likely that it’s just the boss who is looking over a worker’s shoulder.

“Someone who works in IT and who has a special relationship of trust may have access to all these communications,” said Jan Handzlik, a Washington lawyer. “But that doesn’t mean they can be looked at willy-nilly.”

The company said it began an internal investigation Jan. 11, after an employee expressed concerns about the recordings.

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In a conference call with reporters, Wal-Mart offered few details about the incidents, citing the legal investigation.

The technician used phone numbers to select certain conversations to record without the knowledge of the public relations staff that was involved, the company said.

Text messages were electronically grabbed from pagers and other hand-held devices using the technician’s personal equipment, spokeswoman Williams said. She declined to specify the key words or the equipment used.

Still, Wal-Mart’s notification to employees might not be enough to keep Wal-Mart out of trouble, said Joseph Beachboard, a Los Angeles employment law attorney who represents corporations. Wal-Mart’s discipline of two managers could end up being problematic, Beachboard said.

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“It might be argued ... that the company wasn’t properly managing an individual who had access to these sensitive systems or information,” he said.

New York Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty said the paper had no plans for legal action.

But in a statement, she said the company was troubled by the taping.

“At this point, we don’t know many of the key facts, such as what the purpose of this taping was and the extent, if any, to which the action was authorized,” McNulty said.

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abigail.goldman@latimes.com

michelle.quinn@latimes.com


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