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Thomas Coughlin, a former protégé and fishing buddy of Sam Walton who rose to become the second-ranked executive at Wal-Mart, reportedly has agreed to plead guilty to federal charges of wire fraud and tax evasion, charges that could land him in jail for two years or longer.

The charges – which include five counts of wire fraud and one of tax evasion – do not include money laundering, which would have garnered Coughlin considerably more jail time. The plea bargaining arrangement with federal prosecutors reportedly hinged on those charges being dropped by the government.

The Washington Post reports that “government and defense lawyers have agreed that Coughlin would serve 27 months in prison, according to the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the plea is still pending. The judge could give him a different sentence. The plea, which came after several months of discussions, will be handled in Fort Smith, Ark. It is unclear whether the plea deal requires Coughlin to cooperate with investigators who might be probing other conduct within Wal-Mart.”

Coughlin is pleading guilty of looting Wal-Mart of about a half-million dollars, some of it in gift cards, which he used to buy items that included shotguns, vodka, a fishing license, Polish sausage, and a Celine Dion CD. The Wall Street Journal reports that Coughlin managed to get Wal-Mart to pay “for a range of his personal expenses, including a $2,590 kennel at his ranch, a $1,359 pair of handmade alligator boots, and thousands of dollars in hunting leases.” And the New York Times writes that Coughlin “bought an all terrain vehicle from a potential Wal-Mart supplier, using $8,500 in company money and permitting the supplier to cover the remaining $2,200, according to records. The arrangement violated Wal-Mart's ban on gifts from vendors that it has done or may do business with.”

The WSJ writes that “Mr. Coughlin, regarded once by some employees as the living embodiment of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, is likely to be the senior most Wal-Mart executive charged for his involvement in the episode. Several other lower level employees could also face charges. Mr. Coughlin was widely regarded as helping preside over one of the most successful periods of growth in Wal-Mart history, and the scandal has shocked thousands of employees who admired him.

Coughlin has all along maintained that he was reimbursing himself for expenses incurred when he funded – with corporate knowledge – an effort to spy on union organizers and disrupt their activities. Federal prosecutors say that their investigation has yielded no evidence that such an effort existed, though Coughlin reportedly will continue to use this as a defense when his case gets to the sentencing phase.
KC's View:
This is a tragedy on so many levels.

It’s been interesting to note that almost every story about Coughlin’s plea bargain has raised the question about the Bentonville public library, which recently was rechristened the Coughlin Library. It seems inevitable that the name is going to be changed, especially because Wal-Mart and the Walton family did so much fund raising for the facility.

Ironically, it was just last Thursday that our lead story read:

”In an age when names like Ken Lay, Bernard Ebbers and Jack Abramhoff dominate the headlines, the issue of business and cultural ethics clearly needs to be raised again and again, in the hope that decisions and strategies can be charted because they are right, not just expedient and profitable.”

Whether the name is Lay or Ebbers or Abramhoff or Coughlin, you have to wonder about these people who are so gifted, so lucky, and so talented – and yet willfully make lousy decisions for the sake of a buck.

“Hell has three gates,” someone once said. “Lust, anger and greed.”

Shame on them.