The Grey Lady has an amazingly detailed, must-read account of corruption at the highest levels of Wal-Mart. In 2005, Sergio Cicero Zapata, a lawyer who had been with WalMart in Mexico for ten years and had resigned in 2004, came forward with a description of his involvement, sanctioned by top executives in Wal-Mart’s Mexican operation, of handing out bribes totaling over $24 million to accelerate the construction of new stores. This activity is a clear violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Even though the Bentonville giant quickly found evidence corroborating the Cicero’s charges, as well as that of a cover-up by the top brass in Mexico, and looked into hiring an outside law firm to conduct an independent investigation, it quickly converted it to a limited review by an internal unit whose main activity was handling shoplifting cases. And lead responsibility for the probe was assigned to the general counsel of Wal-Mart de Mexico, a sure-fire way to assure no tough questions would be asked. Not only was the Mexico CEO who was deeply involved in this program promoted repeatedly after the notification by Cicero, ultimately becoming vice chairman at the parent level, but the current CEO, Michael Duke, had just been installed as the head of WalMart International, was involved in the coverup. The then-current CEO, Lee Scott, criticized the internal investigators for being too aggressive.
A representative section of the account:
Mr. Cicero recounted how he had helped organize years of payoffs. He described personally dispatching two trusted outside lawyers to deliver envelopes of cash to government officials. They targeted mayors and city council members, obscure urban planners, low-level bureaucrats who issued permits — anyone with the power to thwart Wal-Mart’s growth. The bribes, he said, bought zoning approvals, reductions in environmental impact fees and the allegiance of neighborhood leaders..
The Times also reviewed thousands of government documents related to permit requests for stores across Mexico. The examination found many instances where permits were given within weeks or even days of Wal-Mart de Mexico’s payments to the two lawyers. Again and again, The Times found, legal and bureaucratic obstacles melted away after payments were made.
The Times conducted extensive interviews with participants in Wal-Mart’s investigation. They spoke on the condition that they not be identified discussing matters Wal-Mart has long shielded. These people said the investigation left little doubt Mr. Cicero’s allegations were credible. (“Not even a close call,” one person said.)
WalMart informed the Justice Department of the possible (as in probable) violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act only in December 2011, after it got wind of the New York Times investigation.
This is a Murdoch-News of the World level scandal involving a company that is extraordinarily powerful in the US. The Times account is far more damning, detailed, and supported by documents and interviews than the initial releases by the Guardian on l’affaire Murdoch. It also indicates it found evidence of bribery in Mexico beyond those relating to the store expansion, namely, kickbacks from construction companies. It will reveal a great deal about the state of the rule of law in the US as to what sort of investigations and prosecutions result from these revelations.