WASHINGTON — Federal agents investigating Wal-Mart seized documents from an executive's office Thursday and raided 61 stores across the country, arresting about 250 illegal immigrants working on cleaning crews, authorities said.
The investigation grew out of two earlier probes into the use of undocumented workers by cleaning contractors for Wal-Mart, the world's largest company as measured by revenue. Authorities dubbed the inquiry "Operation Rollback," a reference to the name Wal-Mart uses for its price reductions.
Authorities said Wal-Mart and its executives -- and not the cleaning subcontractors -- were the focus of the latest probe.
"They are looking to see if Wal-Mart was involved -- did they have knowledge of the contractors' practices and turn a blind eye to it?" said a law enforcement official who asked not to be identified. "How far up does it go?"
A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said the company believed that all of its subcontractors used only legal workers. The company uses its own cleaning crews for most of its 3,412 stores in the United States, she said, but contracts with 110 companies to clean about 700 of its stores. None of the stores raided was in California.
"We are very disturbed by these allegations and have initiated our own internal investigation so that we will know what happened here," said Mona Williams, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. "We have seen no evidence from the INS that anyone at Wal-Mart was involved in any scheme involving illegal workers, and if it turns out to be true, we will cooperate fully with law enforcement officials."
Federal authorities declined to identify the Wal-Mart executive whose office at the company's Bentonville, Ark., headquarters was searched Thursday morning. Williams would say only that the executive was a "mid-level manager."
Agents arrived before 8 a.m. with a search warrant, she said, and left with several boxes of documents.
Associated Press, citing unnamed law enforcement sources, reported that recordings of meetings and conversations among Wal-Mart executives, contractors and managers suggested that the company had known about immigration violations.
Under federal law, employers must establish that a worker is a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or is otherwise legally authorized to work. Violators of the employment law can be prosecuted for a offenses ranging from wage-and-hour violations to conspiracy.
The Wal-Mart investigation is being overseen by federal prosecutors in Pennsylvania who are presenting evidence to a grand jury, which may issue indictments. Wayne Samuelson, an assistant U.S. attorney in Williamsport, Pa., declined to elaborate.
The only people arrested in the probe have been cleaning crew workers, many of whom came from Eastern Europe.
Agents from the Federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 21 states confronted the workers just before the night crews were due to finish their shifts, said Garrison Courtney, a spokesman for the agency, known as ICE. Many of the Wal-Mart stores were in the eastern U.S.
"This is a regular, routine investigation for us," Courtney said. "It pops into the public eye because of the number of arrests, and because a higher name-recognition company draws more attention. But it's something we do all the time."
Those rounded up face deportation proceedings, Courtney said. However, workers with no criminal record can be released while their cases are pending.
"They will go in front of an immigration judge," Courtney said. "If they have not committed any crimes, they are probably eligible for bond."
Neither federal officials nor Wal-Mart would release the names of the cleaning firms whose workers were arrested.
The original case, which targeted Wal-Mart contractors, was referred to federal authorities by Pennsylvania's attorney general in 1998. Exactly when the investigation started taking aim at Wal-Mart instead of its contractors is unclear. The state attorney general's office Thursday referred all questions to federal authorities.
Williams said she had no knowledge of any prior probe.
A federal law enforcement official in Washington said authorities continued to see a problem at Wal-Mart stores even after the inquiries in 1998 and 2001.
"If an employer is continuing to use illegal workers over a period of several years, then you do see a pattern," the official said. "There was a common theme here: Wal-Mart cleaning crews."
The raided stores were in Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.
"It's a constant problem in Arizona," said Brad Pierce, a janitorial contractor who cleans a mall next to one of the Wal-Mart stores raided Thursday. "I was silently cheering them on," he said of the federal action, which he tracked through news reports.