Wal-Mart Slaps Roehm With Counterclaim

Alleges Ousted Exec Had Improper Relationships With Womack, DraftFCB

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Wal-Mart has fired back at Julie Roehm with a counterclaim alleging that the ousted marketing star breached her duty to the company by having an improper relationship with a subordinate and by showing favoritism to an ad agency during last year's account review.
Julie Roehm
Photo: Scott Breithaupt
Julie Roehm
point bug Wal-Mart's Countersuit

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The 28-page document, filed in response to Ms. Roehm's own lawsuit against her former employer, is at times lurid account loaded with blush-worthy details of the high-profile marketer's brief time at Wal-Mart. And it appears to mark an escalation in her already pitched PR battle with the retail giant.

Evidence of affair
The counterclaim, filed March 19, includes extensive allegations that Ms. Roehm carried on affair with former Wal-Mart VP-Communications Architecture Sean Womack, based at least in part on e-mails supplied by Mr. Womack's wife, Shelley. In the lawsuit, Wal-Mart also alleges that Ms. Roehm "engaged in inappropriate dealings and relationships with an advertising agency" -- DraftFCB -- "seeking to do business with Wal-Mart."

Wal-Mart is accusing Ms. Roehm of having employment talks with DraftFCB during the review. Referenced in the lawsuit is an e-mail between an agency executive, former new-business chief Tony Weisman, and Ms. Roehm and Mr. Womack that raises the possibility of future employment at Interpublic Group of Cos.' DraftFCB. One message from Mr. Womack's e-mail account mentioned the possibility of future employment and included specific questions about time frames and the possibility of "having a stake in our next gig." That e-mail was signed "Sean and Julie."

"More importantly to you, in the two of us you have a team that can help lead your organization in a powerful way. But the opportunity will need to be broad enough," they wrote.

Shortly after the Roehm story exploded, Mr. Weisman moved from DraftFCB to the Chicago office of Digitas, where he is president.

Promises 'not sanctioned'
Asked for comment, an Interpublic spokesman said in an e-mail: "In his business development role, Mr. Weisman did not have the authority to start new ventures, or make commitments to offer up senior-level opportunities within the agency. Any promises Mr. Weisman may have made were not sanctioned by his company's senior management or discussed with Interpublic. In December, DraftFCB chose to part ways with Mr. Weisman."

Mr. Weisman didn't respond to calls for comment.

Wal-Mart's counterclaim against Ms. Roehm alleges that her relationship with Mr. Womack and the agency violated Wal-Mart's corporate policy and that Ms. Roehm breached her fiduciary obligations to the company. "She did not merely fail to avoid conflicts of interest," it states. "She invited them." The amount of damages sought isn't specified.

Ms. Roehm has repeatedly denied that her relationship with Mr. Womack was improper, saying it was more sibling-like than romantic. But Wal-Mart claims that Mr. Womack's wife discovered a personal Gmail account that included a number of communications between Mr. Womack and Ms. Roehm. A sample: Ms. Roehm wrote, "I hate not being able to call you or write you. I think about us together all of the time. Little moments like watching your face when you kiss me. I loved your voicemail last night and love the idea of memory and kept thinking/wishing that it would have been you and I there last night. So there's a little head action for you." Mr. Womack replied, "That was some good head action for me. Yes. You can call & you can write me here."

Blue Angels air show
The lawsuit also offers a long account of Ms. Roehm's dealings with DraftFCB, including the now-infamous AdForum dinner where Ms. Roehm appeared with the agency, along with a number of other dinner and drinks sessions and even one Blue Angels air show, which Wal-Mart claims amounted to a violation of its policies forbidding the acceptance of gifts from vendors.

The lawsuit points the finger sharply at Mr. Weisman. "During the time that DraftFCB was actively pursuing Wal-Mart's general-market advertising account ... Roehm and Womack maintained nearly daily, direct contact with Weisman -- well exceeding normal customary contact with prospective suppliers."

On one occasion, Mr. Weisman flew from Chicago to Houston to take the then-Wal-Mart executives to a $694 dinner at Alden Restaurant. The next day, he followed with an e-mail that offered some post-revelry cheer and even some advice: "Everyone perky this morning? Fun night ... PS, hydrate."

'Smear tactic'
Ms. Roehm did not reply to e-mails or calls for this story, but in a press statement, Ms. Roehm's lawyers called the lawsuit a "smear tactic" and claimed that Wal-Mart is taking the e-mails out of context.

"If the giant Wal-Mart were to be successful in its claim against Julie ... it would be an irrelevant result, because Wal-Mart knows that Julie barely has resources sufficient to defend herself, let alone to satisfy such a claim. There can be only one explanation for Wal-Mart's attempt to file a counterclaim (unless, of course, Wal-Mart hates its money and enjoys paying lawyers), and that is that Wal-Mart wants to try to destroy" Ms. Roehm, the lawyers' statement said.

"It is clear that Wal-Mart has particularly determined to ensure that its newsworthy attempt to file a counterclaim is missed by no one, with its publicity machine taking a front seat to the actual legal merits of Wal-Mart's filing," the statement continued. "It is not a coincidence that in Wal-Mart's proposed counterclaim, Wal-Mart -- which apparently reads its employees' e-mails -- has chosen only to excerpt small portions of some of those e-mails in its filings. Wal-Mart deliberately chose to take the e-mails out of context, eliminating from its filing some of the substance of those e-mails, and then editorializing about the few actually quoted words that it left behind, putting its own spin on them to create sensationalism."
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