Sun, Aug 13, 2006 - Page 11 News List

Wal-Mart executive sentenced

THICK WITH IRONY A former executive at the global retailer who was once in charge of preventing theft was sentenced to more than two years of home detention for stealing

AP , FORT SMITH, ARKANSAS

A former No. 2 Wal-Mart executive who began his career as the company's theft prevention chief was sentenced on Friday to 27 months in home detention after pleading guilty to stealing money, merchandise and gift cards from the retailer.

Thomas Coughlin, 57, avoided any prison time, but was ordered also to serve five years probation, and pay a US$50,000 fine and about US$411,000 in restitution to Wal-Mart Stores Inc and the Internal Revenue Service.

Prosecutors had asked for Coughlin to serve six months to a year in prison, but US District Judge Robert Dawson agreed with a doctor who testified that Coughlin's health was too poor for him to enter prison.

Coughlin pleaded guilty in January to stealing items from the world's largest retailer that were worth just a fraction of the millions of dollars he earned in salary, bonuses and stock options.

"There is no excuse for my conduct," Coughlin said during the hearing.

Dawson said Coughlin had been an exemplary citizen before this case and had already been punished by the surrounding publicity. Dawson also noted that Coughlin still faces the possibility of losing his retirement benefits if Wal-Mart succeeds with a civil lawsuit that is currently under appeal.

"It has been a spectacular fall," the judge said in sentencing Coughlin.

Wal-Mart said it was pleased that the case was concluded and noted that US Attorney Robert Balfe told reporters the investigation had found no evidence backing Coughlin's earlier claims that the money he took was reimbursement for unspecified anti-union activities.

Wal-Mart has denied there was any anti-union project headed by Coughlin.

"US Attorney Balfe confirmed that the government thoroughly investigated Mr. Coughlin's claims and found no wrong doing on the part of the company," Wal-Mart said in a statement after the sentencing.

"Our company's actions through-out this process have been consistent with our core values and the principle that all associates are held accountable to the same standard, regardless of their position," Wal-Mart said.

Coughlin appeared to revive those allegations of anti-union work in comments to reporters outside the courthouse after he was sentenced.

"It is obvious that the activity that I was involved in had gone on for a number of years and was in fact acknowledged by members of management even though they did not know the specific details," he said, reading from a written statement.

He did not take questions and did not elaborate.

Coughlin had faced a maximum of 28 years in prison on five counts of wire fraud and one count of filing a false tax return and fines up to US$1.35 million.

Wal-Mart referred Coughlin to federal prosecutors after alleging he took money, goods and gift cards worth up to US$500,000 over a period of at least seven years before he retired early last year.

Coughlin, who joined Wal-Mart in 1978 as head of theft prevention, retired as vice chairman in January last year and gave up his spot on the company board in March last year after Wal-Mart referred him to prosecutors. The matter was taken up by a grand jury in Fort Smith.

In court in January, Coughlin specifically admitted defrauding the company to pay for the care of his hunting dogs, lease a private hunting area, upgrade his pickup truck, buy liquor and a cooler, and receive US$3,100 in cash. The items were worth a total of US$14,395.

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