Feb. 6, 2007 — -- How private is personal e-mail?
Former Wal-Mart executive Julie Roehm found out the answer to that question the hard way.
One of her personal e-mails has become a central piece of evidence in her vicious legal battle with the retail behemoth.
After Wal-Mart fired the 36-year-old advertising chief in December, she sued the company, claiming that it refused to pay her severance and failed to return personal belongings that she had left behind in her old office.
Last week Wal-Mart got its revenge, going public with allegations that Roehm romanced a subordinate, which violates company policy. The company started investigating her relationship with Vice President Sean Womack after one of Roehm's staffers complained about it, said a spokeswoman for the company.
Wal-Mart's evidence included a personal e-mail between the two co-workers that Roehm claims was exchanged outside of the company's e-mail servers. In general, e-mails exchanged over office computers are considered company property, but those sent through employees' personal computers are deemed private.
So, how did Wal-Mart get its hands on the incriminating message?
Womack's estranged wife reportedly gave it to the retailer last week, after one of the company's lawyers contacted her.
And what prompted the wife, Shelley Womack, to hand over the e-mail? The Wal-Mart attorney apparently made small talk with her about how they both attend services at the same church and mentioned that her husband still hadn't received a $200,000 bonus, according to New York magazine.
Roehm insists that the e-mail consisted only of friendly banter. "It's only eight lines taken from an e-mail," said Roehm. "If you want to take eight lines from an e-mail, you can find anything. I think there's no proof there of anything like they're suggesting."
Roehm and Wal-Mart declined to discuss the content of the e-mail.
The fired exec sees a larger conspiracy at work, claiming that Womack's wife was subtly threatened into handing over the e-mail. "I wasn't on the call but from what I understand, he [the Wal-Mart attorney] called and said that Sean hadn't been paid his bonus and if they could turn it over, then he would be paid."