Wal-Mart fires 2 employees for snooping

World's largest retailer says an internal investigation found the employees monitored and recorded phone conversations without authorization.

By Christopher Browne, CNN assignment editor

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has fired a systems technician and his supervisor after an internal investigation found that the employee had monitored and recorded telephone conversations between Wal-Mart public relations associates and a reporter from The New York Times, the company announced Wednesday.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retail chain, began conducting an internal investigation in January, after an unnamed company employee expressed concern about the recordings, which were made over a four-month period between September 2006 and January 2007, according to Mona Williams, vice president of corporate communications.

Shortly after beginning the investigation, Wal-Mart notified the U. S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas about the alleged phone tapping, the company said.

Both the U.S. attorney and the FBI told Wal-Mart it would be conducting its own investigation into the matter, Williams said in a conference call Wednesday afternoon.

In a written statement obtained by CNN, a spokeswoman for The New York Times said the company was "troubled," by the unauthorized eavesdropping, but was awaiting further details from Wal-Mart.

"We are troubled by what appears to be inappropriate taping of our reporter's conversations. 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," the spokeswoman said.

Wal-Mart, which is based in Bentonville, Ark., noted in its statement that neither federal law nor state law prohibit a telephone conversation from being recorded if one party has given his or her consent, and that "since Wal-Mart policies state that all electronic communications of associates using Wal-Mart communication systems are subject to monitoring and recording, Wal-Mart associates give their consent to the monitoring and recording of their calls."

"Therefore," it said, "the unauthorized recording of telephone conversations by the systems technician did not violate any laws."

During its investigation into the phone tapping, Wal-Mart also discovered several instances in which the same technician had intercepted text messages and pages unrelated to the conversations between the reporter, Michael Barbaro, and Wal-Mart's corporate offices.

No details were immediately made available on the nature of the text messages and pages, only that they were local and were intercepted using equipment not issued by Wal-Mart.

In addition to terminating the technician who conducted the recordings and intercepts, Wal-Mart said it had taken disciplinary action against two management associates for "failure to carry out their management duties," including the termination of the technician's supervisor, Williams said.

Asked whether Wal-Mart had apologized to The New York Times and Barbaro, Williams said that Lee Scott, the company's president and CEO, had called the newspaper personally and an apology had also been given to Barbaro on the company's behalf.

Wal-Mart (Charts) shares fell less than 1 percent in afternoon New York Stock Exchange trading. Shares of rival Target (Charts) edged lower, while Sears' (Charts)s stock was little changed.

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