The investigator flew to Guatemala in April 2002 with a delicate mission: trail a Wal-Mart manager around the country to prove he was sleeping with a lower-level employee, a violation of company policy.
The apparent smoking gun? “Moans and sighs” heard as the investigator, a Wal-Mart employee, pressed his ear against a hotel room door inside a Holiday Inn, according to legal documents. Soon after, the company fired the manager for what it said was improper fraternization with a subordinate.
Wal-Mart, renowned to outsiders for its elbows-out business tactics, is known internally for its bare-knuckled no-expense-spared investigations of employees who break its ironclad ethics rules.
Over the last five years, Wal-Mart has assembled a team of former officials from the C.I.A., F.B.I. and Justice Department whose elaborate, at times globetrotting, investigations have led to the ouster of a high-profile board member who used company funds to buy hunting equipment, two senior advertising executives who took expensive gifts from a potential supplier and a computer technician who taped a reporter’s telephone calls.
The investigators — whose résumés evoke Langley, Va., more than Bentonville, Ark. — serve as a rapid-response team that aggressively polices the nation’s largest private employer, enforcing Wal-Mart’s modest by-the-books culture among its army of 1.8 million employees.
Wal-Mart is certainly not the only company, or even the first, to investigate its employees, a practice used widely in corporate America to guard against fraud and protect trade secrets. But despite the retailer’s folksy Arkansas image, few companies are as prickly — or unforgiving — about its employees’ wayward behavior, a legacy of its frugal founder, Sam Walton, who equated misconduct with inefficiency that would cost customers money.
No case better demonstrates the company’s prowess — or, former employees say, its ruthlessness — than the exhaustive investigation of Julie Roehm and Sean Womack, two former top Wal-Mart marketing executives.
After Ms. Roehm sued Wal-Mart for wrongful termination, the company disclosed the results of the investigation last week in a detailed and at times salacious countersuit. Investigators obtained records that they said showed the two married executives had engaged in a sexual affair, accepted free meals from an advertising agency vying to win Wal-Mart’s business and begun negotiating a deal to leave Wal-Mart to work for that agency.
Yesterday, Ms. Roehm called Wal-Mart’s investigation “a smear campaign” intended to destroy her reputation and, in a nod to Wal-Mart’s investigative firepower, said the company had outmanned her with “ex-C.I.A. operatives” and “former F.B.I. men.”
The Wal-Mart investigation was striking in its scope. Lawyers for Wal-Mart subpoenaed Mr. Womack’s wife, Shelley, compelling her to give sworn testimony about how she discovered a sexual relationship between her husband and Ms. Roehm. They prompted her to turn over dozens of embarrassing e-mail messages that her husband had sent to Ms. Roehm from a private account.
“I miss you ridiculously,” began one of the e-mail messages from Ms. Roehm to Mr. Womack. “I hate not being able to call you or write you. I think about us together all the time. Little moments like watching your face when you kiss me.”
Wal-Mart investigators also persuaded the top executives at a major advertising agency, Draft FCB, and its parent company, the Interpublic Group of Companies, to turn over hundreds of confidential e-mail messages, dinner receipts and notes from meetings. One revelation was that Ms. Roehm accepted a case of Effen vodka, valued at nearly $400, from the chief executive of Draft FCB, calling the gift, which violated Wal-Mart’s policies, “a HUGE hit” in a thank-you e-mail message.
Ms. Roehm and Mr. Womack have denied they engaged in a sexual relationship or did anything wrong. Mr. Womack did not respond to phone messages.
Kenneth H. Senser, a former top official at the C.I.A. and F.B.I. who runs Wal-Mart’s security department, said cases like these showed that Wal-Mart was determined to enforce consistently its employment policies, no matter how high the rank of the workers involved. Both Mr. Womack and Ms. Roehm, for example, were senior executives with six-figure salaries.
“It’s been very clear from these investigations that the company has taken a definitive stand,” said Mr. Senser, who interviewed both Ms. Roehm and Mr. Womack before they were fired in late 2006. “The chips are going to fall where they may. If it’s a senior vice president or cashier in the store, we are going to look at the allegations the same way — and not give somebody a pass.”
Mr. Senser, 47, and his staff of roughly 400, investigate allegations of misconduct, guard Wal-Mart executives and prepare for potential crises of all kinds, from hurricanes to terrorist attacks. (During Hurricane Katrina, they established an emergency response center inside Wal-Mart’s headquarters, filled with flat-screen televisions, that resembled one used by the F.B.I.) Their backgrounds are impressive, if not slightly intimidating. Mr. Senser was a senior officer in the C.I.A.’s office of security, which was responsible for investigating agents considered a security risk. After that, he supervised the development of an internal security department at the F.B.I. when the agency discovered that Robert P. Hanssen, one of its agents, had spied for the Soviet Union and Russia.
Joe Lewis, who runs the internal corporate investigations unit at Wal-Mart, worked at the F.B.I. for 27 years, serving as acting assistant director for criminal investigations. He works closely with Thomas C. Gean, chief legal compliance officer, who was the United States attorney for the Western District of Arkansas.
In an interview, H. Lee Scott Jr., Wal-Mart’s chief executive, said that “it has reached the point where there are issues that take specialized skills to get to the bottom of.”
Mr. Scott conceded that the team has been unusually busy lately. “You almost have to laugh,” he said of executives engaging in egregious conduct. “You can’t make this stuff up.”
Three weeks ago, for example, Wal-Mart fired a computer technician, Bruce Gabbard, and one of his superiors, Jason Hamilton, after a two-month investigation conducted by Mr. Senser and his staff. They found that Mr. Gabbard, acting alone, had taped phone conversations between members of Wal-Mart’s media relations staff and this reporter of The New York Times. Using equipment he bought on eBay, he also intercepted text messages sent from his colleagues’ BlackBerries.
Mr. Scott, who personally apologized for the incident, said Mr. Gabbard had tried to uncover the source of leaked internal documents shared with newspapers like The Times “because he thought what was happening to his company was unfair and he was going to do something about it.” Mr. Gabbard has declined to comment.
Behind Wal-Mart’s response to such cases is a proud preoccupation with sticking to the rules. Inside Wal-Mart’s spare headquarters, large signs affixed to the doors of meeting rooms spell out a ban on gifts of any value from potential vendors, whether it is a free plane ticket or a cup of coffee.
No wonder, perhaps, that wasted money — from suppliers and Wal-Mart employees — is a recurring theme in the company’s investigations.
One of the company’s biggest investigations was of a board member and former vice chairman, Thomas M. Coughlin, whom it accused in 2005 of dipping into company funds to pay for CDs, beer, an all-terrain vehicle, duck-hunting boots and a customized dog kennel. His total theft, Wal-Mart said, was more than $500,000.
As with Ms. Roehm and Mr. Womack, Wal-Mart spared no detail in its case against Mr. Coughlin, who pleaded guilty to federal charges in the case. Investigators documented dozens of improper purchases that included fiber supplements and doughnuts and, in legal filings, described him as a rogue executive committed to defrauding the company.
But not all of Wal-Mart’s investigations involve money, or even high-stakes business matters, prompting employees to protest that the company’s investigative arm is, at times, used to intimidate employees who question authority or raise issues their bosses wish to remain secret.
James W. Lynn, a factory inspection manager at Wal-Mart, was fired in 2002 for fraternization with a subordinate after an investigation that extended across several countries.
During the investigation, a company investigator followed Mr. Lynn and a lower-level female colleague who worked in Costa Rica on a business trip to Guatemala City, where he spied on the pair for at least four days — even booking a hotel room directly across the hall from the female employee’s room to keep watch on the pair. (In the end, both Mr. Lynn and the woman did say they kissed.)
Mr. Lynn, in an interview and in a wrongful-termination lawsuit filed against Wal-Mart, claims he was singled out because he openly criticized the working conditions in the Central American factories he inspected.
“Wal-Mart is the ultimate Big Brother in corporate America,” Mr. Lynn said. He disputes Wal-Mart’s claim that it investigates every employee the same way. “They are very opportunistic,” he said. “If it is someone they want to get rid of, they will go all out. If it’s somebody whose career they want to save, they won’t.”
Sarah Clark, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, said the company “took the steps it deemed necessary to investigate the allegations of fraternization” and denied the company was motivated by Mr. Lynn’s criticism.
Mr. Senser, who arrived after the investigation of Mr. Lynn, said his staff knew its boundaries.
“We are not in the business of prosecuting people, or pursuing an allegation to find a violation of the law,” Mr. Senser said. “We operate for the benefit of our shareholders to make sure this company is being appropriately and ethically run. There is a difference.”