How Wal-Mart got the love e-mail

When Wal-Mart famously fired ad exec Julie Roehm, some juicy emails were brought to light - but the love notes came from an unexpected source, says Fortune's Devin Leonard.

By Devin Leonard, Fortune senior writer

(Fortune Magazine) -- A saucy detail in the scandal surrounding Wal-Mart's firing of Julie Roehm is an e-mail that she sent to her subordinate, Sean Womack. In it the former senior vice president of marketing communications wrote: "I think about us together all of the time. Little moments like watching your face when you kiss me."

The e-mail made Roehm look like an adulteress. But lost in the coverage was an explanation of how Wal-Mart (Charts) got this damning piece of evidence. Wal-Mart won't say where it came from. Roehm's lawyer, Andrew Rifkin, told Fortune that Wal-Mart talked Womack's estranged wife, Shelley, into turning over her husband's private e-mails by promising her that they would never be made public.

Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott
Photo Gallery launchSee more photos
The king of retailers has lost ground to competitors since its current CEO took over. Wall Street is starting to lose patience, says Fortune's Jon Birger. (more)

For those high-minded souls who haven't been following corporate America's favorite soap opera, a brief recap: In December, Roehm was fired from her position after ten months on the job. At the time the retail giant questioned her about accepting gifts from Draftfcb, the ad agency that won Wal-Mart's $580 million account. (Wal-Mart prohibits employees from accepting gifts.)

The firing turned out to be just the beginning of Roehm's headaches. Within days she sued her former employer for breach of contract. In March, Wal-Mart responded with a counterclaim as page-turning as Danielle Steel. It included a lengthy account of an "inappropriate romantic relationship" between Roehm and Sean Womack, a former marketing VP at Wal-Mart, complete with the e-mail excerpts. The filing even quoted a "friend" of Womack's who said he caught the two in the act in a Fayetteville, Ark., bar: "Womack had Roehm 'pinned' against the wall in an intimate pose."

It's not unheard-of for allegations of sexual misbehavior to surface when a top executive is ousted. What's surprising about the Roehm case is that the e-mails became public. "Usually these matters are quietly resolved," says attorney Ronald Green, who defended Fox News when Bill O'Reilly was loudly accused of cajoling a former producer to have phone sex. (The case was settled out of court.)

Quiet resolution was not what Shelley Womack got when she agreed to help Wal-Mart. According to Roehm's lawyer, Wal-Mart had one of Sean Womack's old Saatchi & Saatchi X colleagues - someone who still does advertising work for the retailer - call Shelley in January and urge her to contact Thomas Mars, the retailer's general counsel.

Roehm's lawyer further claims that Mars told Shelley Womack to cooperate with Wal-Mart's investigation if she and her husband ever wanted to get his signing bonus. (Womack didn't return calls seeking comment, but according to Wal-Mart, she and her husband, Sean, are separated.)

So why did Wal-Mart put the amorous e-mail in the counterclaim? Wal-Mart refused to discuss it. But the company was clearly angered by Roehm's combativeness after she was fired. She accused Wal-Mart of making "false and malicious statements" to the press about her, and even after Wal-Mart had the compromising e-mails, Roehm publicly made fun of the retailer and talked of writing a book about her experience. Even now she denies she had an affair or did anything wrong while overseeing Draftfcb's selection. And Roehm and her husband, Michael, are still together, while Roehm and Sean Womack are considering starting a marketing company.

Roehm's attorney suggests that the real reason his client ran afoul of Wal-Mart was her outspokenness. She pointed out in one meeting that the company was wildly overpaying for its commercial production, according to Rifkin.

Regardless of the suits' outcome, she's tainted. "It will certainly have an impact on her ability to find another job," says Kathleen Bogas, president of the National Employment Lawyers Association. "Now she's Julie Roehm, that sex goddess."

Wal-Mart may regret it too. It wasn't easy for the company to lure edgy ad execs to its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters. The Julie Roehm scandal isn't likely to change that.  Top of page