Risk & Compliance

Did Wal-Mart Fire a Whistleblower?

A former vice president at the retailing giant reportedly gave the company information that aided a probe leading to an ouster of the then-vice cha...
Stephen TaubApril 29, 2005

A former Wal-Mart vice president who claims he was fired after reporting questionable payments requested by the company’s former vice chairman has asked federal prosecutors to investigate whether he should have been protected as a corporate whistleblower, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Jared Bowen, the former vice president, gave Wal-Mart information that reportedly aided the retailing giant’s probe of Thomas Coughlin, who later resigned his executive position but is expected to remain on the board until June.

The board asked him to quit after an in-house inquiry found as much as $500,000 unauthorized payments that seemed to have been obtained through the reporting of false information on third-party invoices and company expense reports, according to a March company filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Coughlin’s lawyers said he “did not seek nor obtain any improper reimbursements from Wal-Mart,” according to the Journal. The paper noted that Coughlin has maintained that the questionable transactions were intended to fund a secret campaign to gather intelligence about union organizing at Wal-Mart.

One week after Coughlin resigned, Bowen was fired, according to the paper. Bowen reportedly said that he told the company about two questionable expense-related requests made by Coughlin. The reason for Bowen’s firing was “loss of confidence in associate as a company officer,” the Journal, reported, citing a copy of Wal-Mart’s exit interview.

The world’s largest retailer claims that it had acted properly in firing the ex-vice president. Bowen “is not a whistleblower,” Mona Williams, vice president of corporate communications at Wal-Mart, told the paper. The company’s probe was started after another employee, who is still an employee “in good standing,” provided information linked to Coughlin’s use of gift cards, she asserted.

Bowen formally asked a federal prosecutor to investigate whether Wal-Mart violated a U.S. Department of Justice mandate called the Thompson Memorandum, a guideline for prosecutors in assessing corporate liability for internal missteps, according to the newspaper. One gauge of liability is whether the company has a compliance program encouraging workers to sound the alarm on wrongdoing.

“Wal-Mart has an obligation to Jared and all employees to create an environment in which people can come forward, report wrongdoing and not worry about retaliation,” Bowen’s attorney, Steve Kardell of Clouse Dunn Hirsch in Dallas, told the paper. “But in this case, Jared came forward, reported wrongdoing, and the company packed up his things and sent him on his way. Someone will have to explain to me how that’s not retaliation.”