Feds Launch Criminal Probe of Walmart Over Bribery Scandal

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Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

Walmart CEO Michael T. Duke received a "detailed description" of the bribery allegations in 2005, when he was in charge of Walmart International and responsible for the company's Mexican business.

The Justice Department is investigating Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, over allegations that its Mexican subsidiary engaged in a systematic practice of bribing government officials to obtain building permits. The feds launched the probe last December after Walmart disclosed that it had opened its own investigation upon finding out that The New York Times was reporting on the matter. Walmart could face stiff fines, increased regulatory scrutiny, or even high-level executive departures. Meanwhile, critics of the company unleashed a barrage against the retailer.

News of the investigation, which was first reported by The Washington Post (and later by Bloomberg), should not come as a surprise given the nature and scope of the allegations against the company. Walmart could be charged with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which makes it a crime to bribe foreign government officials.

The scandal has already caught the attention of powerful lawmakers in Congress. On Monday, Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat and the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, and the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent Walmart a letter demanding answers from the company.

The lawmakers, who have launched their own probe of the scandal, wrote that the allegations raise “significant questions about the actions of top company officials in the United States who reportedly tried to disregard substantial evidence of abuse.”

(More: How Big a Deal Is Walmart’s Mexico Bribery Scandal?)

The bribery allegations have provided renewed fodder for Walmart critics, who have accused the company of running roughshod over local businesses and treating workers poorly. “The reported cover-up by Walmart executives at the highest levels exposes a core truth: Walmart cannot be taken at its word,” Joe Hansen, international president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said in statement.

In New York, city council speaker and longtime Walmart critic Christine Quinn issued a blistering statement. “The corporation’s tactics of bribery, scheming and corruption are the latest in a litany of despicable business practices including discrimination, worker mistreatment and predatory pricing,” Quinn said. “This is precisely the type of business we do not want in our communities and I remain committed to fighting against Wal-Mart’s corporate poison from entering the five boroughs.”

In a lengthy statement, Walmart said: “If these allegations are true, it is not a reflection of who we are or what we stand for. We are deeply concerned by these allegations and are working aggressively to determine what happened.

Among the more sensational charges detailed in The Times story:

  • Officials at Walmart de Mexico (a.k.a. Walmex) allegedly directed hundreds of cash payments to government officials to obtain building permits throughout Mexico.
  • Executives at Walmart headquarters, including current CEO Michael T. Duke, learned of the payments and sent investigators to Mexico to uncover more details. Walmart’s lead investigator concluded in an initial report that there was “reasonable suspicion to believe” that U.S. and Mexican laws had been violated.
  • Walmart’s leaders sought to shut the investigation down, according to The Times, and failed to notify law enforcement officials. Walmex CEO Eduardo Castro-Wright was identified as “the driving force behind years of bribery,” only to be later promoted to vice chairman of Walmart in 2008.
  • After Walmart’s then-CEO H. Lee Scott Jr. “rebuked internal investigators for being overly aggressive,” the investigation was transferred to Walmex’s general counsel, who himself was alleged to have authorized bribes. “The general counsel promptly exonerated his fellow [Walmex] executives,” the paper reported.

Walmart shares fell nearly 5% on Monday; shares in the company’s Mexican subsidiary were down over 10%.