Wal-Mart consultant posed as reporter at opposition's L.A. events
A senior associate at a lobbying firm tapped to help bring a controversial Wal-Mart grocery store to Chinatown abruptly left the firm Thursday after it was revealed that she had infiltrated a news conference held by a group critical of Wal-Mart and posed as a reporter.
Stephanie Harnett had been an employee of Mercury Public Affairs, which received $60,000 from Wal-Mart to lobby L.A. City Hall between January and March, according to Ethics Commission records. The proposed project has provoked opposition from labor groups, which complain about unfair working conditions at the retailer.
On June 6, one of those groups held a news conference to discuss labor conditions at warehouses that are retained by Wal-Mart. According to Elizabeth Brennan, a spokeswoman for Warehouse Workers United, Harnett showed up at the meeting and filled out a media sign-in sheet, saying she was a USC student named "Zoe Mitchell."
According to Brennan, Harnett conducted a 20-minute interview with a warehouse worker, using an audio recorder, without revealing she worked for Wal-Mart. "She told him she was a journalism student at USC and that she was a storyteller from the heart," Brennan said.
Brennan said she saw Harnett again Wednesday at a news conference focused on an upcoming demonstration opposing Wal-Mart's Chinatown store, which will include a supermarket and pharmacy. At that event, an activist pointed out that she was not a USC student but rather an employee of Mercury.
"The action taken by Ms. Harnett was in no way approved, authorized, or directed by Wal-Mart or Mercury," Becky Warren, managing director for Mercury, said in a statement.
"Stephanie is a junior member of our team who made an immature decision," Warren said. "She showed very poor judgment, and Mercury takes full responsibility. We are taking the necessary disciplinary actions. This is an isolated incident that has never happened before and will not happen again."
Warren would not confirm whether Harnett was fired, saying only: "She is no longer with our firm."
Harnett, who also represented the plastic bag industry at City Hall, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Steven Restivo, a Wal-Mart spokesman, called her actions "unacceptable, misleading and wrong."
"Our culture of integrity is a constant at Wal-Mart, and by not properly identifying herself, this individual’s behavior was contrary to our values and the way we do business," Restivo said. "We insist that all our vendors conduct themselves in a way that is transparent and honest and we will reinforce that expectation to ensure this type of activity is not repeated."
-- David Zahniser and Kate Linthicum at Los Angeles City Hall
Image: A picture of Stephanie Harnett taken by Elizabeth Brennan, a spokeswoman for Warehouse Workers United. Credit: Warehouse Workers United