Wal-Mart Says Worker Taped Reporter’s Calls
Federal investigators are looking into the actions of a computer systems technician at Wal-Mart Stores who, over a period of several months, intercepted pager and text messages and also secretly taped telephone conversations between Wal-Mart employees and a reporter for The New York Times, the company said yesterday.
The United States attorney’s office for the Western District of Arkansas and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are assessing the actions of the employee and others inside Wal-Mart to determine whether federal and state laws were broken and whether they have jurisdiction in the matter, according to spokesmen for the investigators’ offices.
Wal-Mart said the technician was not authorized to monitor and tape the conversations between members of its media relations staff and Michael Barbaro, a retail reporter for The Times.
The company did not say what led the technician to make the recordings or why Mr. Barbaro’s conversations were the target.
Over the last year, Mr. Barbaro has written dozens of articles about Wal-Mart, including some that were based on internal company documents that were given to him by union-financed groups that were critical of Wal-Mart’s business practices.
Mona Williams, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, which is based in Bentonville, Ark., said the company fired the technician and a supervisor yesterday. A third manager in Wal-Mart’s information technology group was disciplined. Ms. Williams declined to identify the technician or his supervisors.
H. Lee Scott Jr., Wal-Mart’s chief executive, called the chief executive of The New York Times, Janet L. Robinson, early yesterday to explain the situation and apologize, Ms. Williams said.
Ms. Williams added that she contacted Mr. Barbaro and personally apologized to him, as well.
Wal-Mart said it began an internal investigation into the matter on Jan. 11 after executives were notified by an employee about the recordings. It then notified the United States attorney’s office two days later.
Over the course of a two-month internal investigation, Wal-Mart discovered that the technician had used a program that identified calls coming in from, or made to, Mr. Barbaro at The Times’s New York headquarters from last September to mid-January, Ms. Williams said. The inquiry involved an outside technology firm that scoured more than 100 computer drives and other devices, she said.
Members of the media relations group, including Ms. Williams, were unaware they were being taped, Ms. Williams said.
“No one knew he was recording these conversations,” Ms. Williams said in a conference call with reporters yesterday afternoon. “As a matter of fact, I’m not even sure he knew whose conversations he was recording. He simply programmed in the reporter’s phone number and captured those calls.”
It is unclear whether the technician was able to sort Mr. Barbaro’s calls from those other Times reporters might have made to Wal-Mart since all calls from the newspaper’s New York office register on caller ID screens as a series of numeral 1s.
The technician told investigators of some motives for his actions, Ms. Williams said, but she declined to say what they were because of the continuing investigations.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for The Times, Diane C. McNulty, said: “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.”
Mr. Barbaro declined to comment.
At first blush, it does not appear that the taping of the conversations was illegal.
Under federal and Arkansas state law, a telephone conversation can be recorded if one party has given consent. Wal-Mart said that under its policy, all employees give their consent to the monitoring and recording of their calls made through Wal-Mart systems and equipment.
Wal-Mart said, however, that calls were monitored only in cases of suspected criminal activity or fraud and only with written consent from the company’s legal department. No approval for the recordings was sought or given, the company said.
Ms. Williams added that in the course of the investigation only one person — a “senior-level lawyer” at Wal-Mart — listened to parts of the tapes between Mr. Barbaro and the media group.
The focus of any criminal investigation might be on the text messages and the pages transmitted near company headquarters by people who were not Wal-Mart employees; the technician made those interceptions using his own personal radio-frequency equipment.
“He captured all of the text messages that were within a range of his equipment,” Ms. Williams said. “Some of those messages had key words in them that he was watching for. Those were captured and put into a separate file or bucket from the others.” She declined to provide details of the messages or motives for those actions by the technician.
Federal and most state laws forbid the unauthorized interception of messages, said Rodney Smolla, dean of the University of Richmond Law School.