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Store manager fired amid firestorm

Wal-Mart cites "poor judgment" after deputies were called on a black customer trying to buy gift cards.

By MARK ALBRIGHT, Times Staff Writer
Published December 13, 2005

BRANDON - Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has fired the manager of a supercenter here for "poor judgment" after he called sheriff's deputies to apprehend a black manager of a business whose $13,600 company check could not be verified.

The decision came after a two-week internal investigation concluded the store manager violated Wal-Mart's procedures but found no evidence of racial discrimination.

The store manager, Mark Cornett, could not be reached for comment at his home. Company officials said another, unnamed member of the management team at the 11110 Causeway Blvd. store also will be disciplined, but declined to say more.

And all Wal-Mart store managers in the Tampa area will get racial sensitivity training next month, although it had been previously scheduled.

Reginald Pitts, a 34-year-old human resources manager for GAF Materials Corp., suspects he was singled out for extra scrutiny because he is an African-American who tried to buy 520 gift cards for employees on Nov. 23. But he is still waiting for Wal-Mart to fully explain why he was threatened with arrest after the store said it could not verify his employer's $13,600 check.

Pitts' case has generated a national firestorm of bad publicity for the retail giant at a time when there are some signs it is losing a high-stakes public relations war with its critics. The treatment Pitts encountered, meantime, was familiar to many minority customers who say they are too often treated like prospective thieves by retailers such as Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart has a zero tolerance policy for racial discrimination and racial profiling, and it called the Brandon firing evidence of how seriously it takes complaints.

"The store manager made a bad decision based on poor judgment," said Sarah Clark, Wal-Mart spokeswoman. "We would hope all of our customeres feel they are being treated equally or prompt action will be taken."

Pitts, however, is still considering whether to file a lawsuit.

"Wal-Mart still has to answer questions about how I was treated," he said. "I think I am in a position to help ensure this never happens to anyone else."

For years a white administrative assistant bought gift cards at the same Wal-Mart as incentives for the 125-employee Tampa warehouse of GAF, the nation's largest roofing materials maker. The transactions went through without a glitch. This holiday season, however, that assistant was on vacation, so Pitts did the job himself. He called Wal-Mart to determine what he needed and ordered a $13,600 company check for Wal-Mart. The gift cards were not ready at 11 a.m. when Pitts arrived at the store in khaki slacks and a blue dress shirt. So he went to lunch.

After lunch, the cards were ready, but managers indicated they could not get the GAF check verified. While he waited in the customer service office, two African-American Wal-Mart clerks watching nearby suggested Pitts was singled out for extra scrutiny because he is black. They said some white customers made similar purchases earlier in the day with no delay. After another hour of waiting, Pitts gave up.

Four times he requested the check be returned so he could go to another store. His requests were denied. Finally, two sheriff's deputies arrived, grabbed his arm and said they were summoned by Wal-Mart over a "forged check" he presented. They justified the rough treatment because they thought they could be dealing with a felon.

Within minutes, deputies determined there was no case and handed back the GAF check. Cornett said "have a great day, sir," and Pitts left. Deputies reported they had completed the case at 2:19 p.m.

On Monday, Wal-Mart offered some new details. It said the check approval service the store uses could not access GAF's Citibank account because it had a privacy block, a rare occurrence for a company check. That's typically seen as a red flag by store managers. Wal-Mart policy called for such a check to be returned to Pitts with instructions to ask his bank and employer to straighten out the block.

"Unanswered is how they made this leap from having an unverified account on their hands to a forgery serious enough to call the sheriff while detaining Mr. Pitts" on what turned out to be bogus pretenses, said Jonathon Ellis, Pitts' attorney.

Civil rights groups that have closely monitored the case said Wal-Mart did the right thing by firing the store manager.

"It's a tiny step in what we see as systemic problems at Wal-Mart," said Joe Beasely, southern regional director for Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition. "They have good policies, but practice is another matter. Too many people in the stores have this attitude that African-Americans are untrustworthy."

"It is a good start," said Curtis Stokes, first vice president of the Hillsborough County NAACP. "This was a blatant example" of racial profiling.

--Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or 727 893-8252.

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