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Walmart PR Firm Employee Gone After Posing as a Reporter and Infiltrating Labor Press Conference

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"She showed very poor judgment..."

A purported photo of the employee, Stephanie Harnett. (via Warehouse Workers United)

LOS ANGELES (The Blaze/AP) -- An associate at a lobbying firm tapped to bring a Walmart store to downtown Los Angeles has left the firm after she posed as a reporter at a news conference held by a labor group that opposed the big-box store.

City Ethics Commission records show Stephanie Harnett worked for Mercury Public Affairs, which received $60,000 from Walmart to lobby for a Wal-Mart store to be built in Chinatown, the Los Angeles Times said in its Friday edition.

The project provoked opposition from labor groups, which complain about unfair conditions at the retailer.

Last week, one of those groups, Warehouse Workers United, held a news conference and Harnett signed a media sheet saying she was a student at the University of Southern California named "Zoe Mitchell."

Union Spokeswoman Elizabeth Brennan said Harnett interviewed a warehouse worker using an audio recorder for 20 minutes without saying she was working 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 at another news conference, and an activist pointed out that she was actually a lobbyist.

Mercury released a statement saying Harnett's actions were "in no way approved, authorized, or directed by Wal-Mart or Mercury."

"Stephanie is a junior member of our team who made an immature decision," Becky Warren, managing director for Mercury, said in the statement. "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 to the Times whether Harnett was fired or resigned, saying only she is "no longer with our firm."

Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo said what Harnett did was "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 told the Times.

Harnett did not respond to an email seeking comment from the Times, and a phone message left by The Associated Press at a listing in her name was not immediately returned.

But this might not be the first time a firm associated with Walmart may have done such a thing. The website Gawker, which first broke the story to a national audience, received an email from a former PR firm employee that claims to have worked with Walmart in 2005. She alleges that she was told to do something similar:

My firm had me pose as a grad student studying the effect of big-box stores on rural identity, attend two anti-WalMart, open-to-the-public community meetings, take notes, and call the company immediately afterward with a summary. Other employees at my firm did similar work to the same end. I do want to be clear: my instructions to pretend to be someone else came to me from my firm, NOT from the Wal-Mart rep. It's my understanding that the company does this kind of sketchy legwork in every single town with any kind of anti Wal-Mart sentiment, gathering, etc., and there must be dozens of flacks who have done variations of this.

I seriously doubt some flack thought to infiltrate Wal-Mart and pose as a journalist on her own when I received such a close variation on these instructions from my own then-bosses seven or eight years ago.

The meetings, she says, were about issuing permits to a Walmart in Ohio and were apparently open to the public.

"What strikes me is that with how totally innocuous and publicly accesible [sic] the meetings I attended were," she told Gawker, "they still felt they should send someone to 'spy.'"

"They didn't offer a lot of interpretation-type info to me as a 26-year-old, just an Arkansas number to call when I was finished with the meetings. I read them my notes and everyone said thanks and hung up."

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Information from: Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com

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