The operatic battle between Wal-Mart and its fired senior vice-president of marketing communications, Julie Roehm — the juiciest Madison Avenue scandal in years, and the subject of an upcoming piece in New York — escalated today when Wal-Mart claimed it had "irrefutable and admissible evidence" that she had an affair with Sean Womack, a vice-president who reported to her.
"Julie Roehm didn't tell the truth about the inappropriate relationship with one of her subordinates," Wal-Mart spokesperson Mona Williams said from London. "Despite these denials, Wal-Mart now has irrefutable and admissible evidence of the relationship" between Roehm and Womack. "I would not tell you this if we didn't know it was true." A romantic relationship between employees violates Wal-Mart policy. The company apparently decided to respond after Roehm filed a lawsuit seeking money she claimed Wal-Mart owed her. The suit also referred to "false and malicious" statements by Wal-Mart in the press.
Roehm fired back from on board an airplane. "I guarantee there is nothing because it didn't happen. I know what they have, and it's not evidence of an affair," she said. "It's irrefutable evidence that we're really good friends. He's like a brother to me." Roehm said the evidence in question is personal e-mail exchanged outside of the Wal-Mart system. Womack could not immediately be reached.
Williams said Roehm had also violated company policy by unfairly favoring DraftFCB in the seven-month search for a new ad agency. "She displayed repeated and inappropriate favoritism toward an agency," Williams said, referring to DraftFCB.
Together Roehm and Womack led the search for Wal-Mart's new agency. DraftFCB won after a nine-to-one vote of a Wal-Mart committee, but Wal-Mart later reversed its decision and chose another agency. Wal-Mart spends $580 million a year on advertising and was the most sought-after piece of ad business of last year. Roehm's favoritism included, according to Williams, accepting gifts and "raising the issue of potential employment" for Womack at DraftFCB before the selection process was completed. The Wal-Mart statement did not say anything about inappropriate behavior by DraftFCB.
"I never suggested that Draft hire Sean," Roehm said. "We had conversations about how their company was expanding. But never anything where we said you should hire Sean." She said that Womack, who came from ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, was looking at other opportunities. "If there were leads, they [Draft] could give them," Roehm said.
Roehm said they both knew that Wal-Mart did not permit employees to work for vendors.
Wal-Mart had remained nearly silent since the firing of Roehm and Womack on December 4. But Roehm's lawsuit apparently roused the corporation's ire. It seemed clear that more accusations would follow.
Williams said that Wal-Mart began an investigation of the Roehm-Womack relationship after complaints by someone who worked for Roehm. Williams would not say what the evidence is. She did not say what gifts Roehm had received.
"When Roehm was questioned, she misrepresented what had occurred," said Williams. "Both before and after she was terminated."
"What they decide to do is let you go," said Roehm, referring to Wal-Mart. "They don't need to have a reason to let you go. But they can decide not to pay you. And make you go broke on lawyers' fees." —Steve Fishman