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Wal-Mart and Violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act

Bribery and lack of Full Disclosure Evidences Unethical Behavior at Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart said last week that it spent $73 million on compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) during the first quarter of 2013. It had budgeted $40 million to $45 million. During its prior fiscal year, it spent $157 million for FCPA matters. It expects to spend $65 million to $70 million in the second quarter of 2013. The disclosures came during a conference call from Wal-Mart CFO Charles Holley to reporters.

The company has said it can't tell when its internal investigation of fraudulent payments by a Mexican subsidiary might end or when it will resolve the Department of Justice and SEC investigations. Wal-Mart started its internal investigation in 2011.

Last year, the New York Times reported in a Pulitzer Prize-winning story that the company's Mexico unit paid $24 million in bribes to speed up licensing and permitting for new stores. The paper said top managers in the U.S. covered up the bribery after learning about it.

During last week’s conference call, Wal-Mart said it spent $44 million on the investigation during the first quarter of this year and $29 million for a global compliance review, program enhancements, and organizational changes.

The details surrounding the Wal-Mart de Mexico bribery scandal include the stuffing of envelopes with cash handed off to mayors, bureaucrats and other government officials who wield the power to stand in the way of business. Wal-Mart is accused of not only participating in such bribery at its Mexican subsidiary, but also of sweeping it under the rug once it came to light.

On April 21, The New York Times published a lengthy article alleging that Mexico-based Wal-Mart officials participated in an ongoing bribery scheme several years earlier to achieve market dominance in the country, and that top executives had covered it up. The allegations are corroborated by internal company documents, according to lawmakers investigating the conduct.

A whistleblower -- a former Wal-Mart de Mexico executive -- informed a company attorney of the widespread practice via email in 2005. According to Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who are investigating the allegations, Wal-Mart former general counsel Maritza Munich pressed the company to establish a stricter anti-bribery policy after being informed of the bribes. Munich recommended that a follow-up investigation look into "other potentially suspect transactions not yet identified." Three months after Munich resigned on Feb. 1, 2006, however, the new general counsel ended the investigation.

In its 10-Q form filed with the SEC on December 4, 2012, Wal-Mart admitted that the Company could be exposed to a variety of negative consequences as a result of the investigation into FCPA violations. These include:

  • There could be one or more enforcement actions in respect of the matters that are the subject of some or all of the ongoing government investigations, and such actions, if brought, may result in judgments, settlements, fines, penalties, injunctions, cease and desist orders, debarment or other relief, criminal convictions and/or penalties.
  • The shareholder lawsuits may result in judgments against the Company and its current and former directors and officers named in those proceedings. The Company cannot predict at this time the outcome or impact of the government investigations, the shareholder lawsuits, or its own internal investigations and review.
  • The Company expects to incur costs in responding to requests for information or subpoenas seeking documents, testimony and other information in connection with the government investigations, in defending the shareholder lawsuits, and in conducting the review and investigations. These costs will be expensed as incurred.
  • The Company has incurred expenses of approximately $48 million and $99 million during the three and nine months ended October 31, 2012, respectively, related to these matters. These matters may require the involvement of certain members of the Company’s senior management that could impinge on the time they have available to devote to other matters relating to the business.
  • The Company expects that there will be ongoing media and governmental interest, including additional news articles from media publications on these matters, which could impact the perception among certain audiences of the Company’s role as a corporate citizen.

As a professor of accounting ethics I was intrigued by this disclosure. It seems ironic that Wal-Mart cares about “the perception among certain audiences of the Company’s role as a corporate citizen.” This from a company that has been investigated for other bribery situations and the finding in 2006 that it violated the underage child-labor laws in its factories abroad.

I also found it curious that Wal-Mart decided not to record a contingent amount for possible loss from the lawsuits and other legal actions. In its disclosure, Wal-Mart said: “The Company’s process of assessing and responding to the governmental investigations and the shareholder lawsuits continues. The review, inquiries and investigations are ongoing; and the Company cannot reasonably estimate any possible loss or range of possible loss that may arise from these matters. Although the Company does not presently believe that these matters will have a material adverse effect on its business, given the inherent uncertainties in such situations, the Company can provide no assurance that these matters will not be material to its business in the future.”

This is a classic narrow-minded view of materiality. In accounting a material event is not only one with a significant monetary impact on earnings, but also those with a significant qualitative effect on a company. That is where Wal-Mart falls far short of making an ethical disclosure about its bribery activities at Wal-Mart de Mexico.

Wal-Mart says it “can provide no assurance that these matters will not be material to its business in the future.” I never like negative statements of no assurance. Wal-Mart is looking at its own self-interest from an egoistic point of view and not the interests of its stakeholders – shareholders, creditors, employees, and so on. The Company’s statement includes no information on why the internal controls did not prevent or detect the illegal payments sooner. Major questions exist about corporate governance at Wal-Mart.

The Company needs to step up to the plate and be transparent about the bribery, violation of the FCPA, and possible long-term damage to the Wal-Mart brand. Some indication that the Company knows what happened was wrong would be nice rather than a ‘CYA’ approach. However, given my skepticism about corporate ethics, I never expect companies to act in an ethical mannerand once the cover-up is disclosed most companies rarely decide to fully disclose the details. History has taught us otherwise.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 21, 2013