TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Walmart Worker Taped Reporter's Phone Calls

Walmart Worker Taped Reporter's Phone Calls

Julie Creswell, NY Times (
Tue, 06 Mar 2007 20:21:01 -0600

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' 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

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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