A man pays at the cash register at a Walmart Superstore in Mexico City. Walmart Stores Inc. hushed up a vast bribery campaign that top executives of its Mexican subsidiary carried out to build stores across Mexico, according to a published report by The New York Times.

Walmart: Checking into Mexico corruption claims

NEW YORK — Walmart Stores Inc. said Saturday that it is looking into a newspaper's claims that employees at a subsidiary bribed Mexican officials over several years and that executives at its headquarters in the U.S. shut down any thorough investigation of the allegations.

Walmart, the world's largest retailer, said in a lengthy statement that it has told federal authorities about the matter and that its outside investigators will continue to meet with officials from the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The thrust of the claims made by The New York Times was that in 2005 executives at Walmart's Bentonville, Ark., headquarters heard allegations of bribery of Mexican officials, possibly totaling $24 million over hundreds of payments, but didn't discipline leaders at Walmart de Mexico or notify U.S. or Mexican law enforcement officials. Senior executives, said the Times, "focused more on damage control than on rooting out wrongdoing."

The Times reported that an investigation into the Mexico bribery claims was put mainly in the hands of Walmart's general counsel in Mexico — the man accused of authorizing the bribes — while the executive who allegedly oversaw the bulk of the bribes, Eduardo Castro-Wright, was promoted to Walmart vice chairman in 2008.

The Times also claims that Walmart's then-Chief Executive Lee Scott scolded internal investigators at the time for being too aggressive, while current CEO Michael Duke knew of the claims. "Many of the alleged activities in The New York Times article are more than six years old," said David Tovar, vice president of corporate communications at Walmart, in the statement. "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."

"We are working hard to understand what occurred in Bentonville more than six years ago and are committed to conducting a complete investigation before forming conclusions," added Tovar. "We don't want to speculate or weave stories from incomplete inquiries and limited recollections, as others might do.

"Unfortunately, we realize that, at this point, there are some unanswered questions. We wish we could say more but we will not jeopardize the integrity of the investigation."

Tovar noted in his statement that Walmart had informed shareholders of the investigation in a December filing.

The SEC filing said Walmart didn't believe that the claims "will have a material adverse effect on our business."

The Times' story, however, claims there is "credible evidence that bribery played a persistent and significant role in Walmart's rapid growth in Mexico." Walmart is Mexico's largest private employer, said the paper, with 209,000 workers in the country.

Tovar said Walmart recently tightened its internal controls, hiring a U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act compliance director in Mexico who reports directly to executives in Bentonville.

"In the spring of 2011, we initiated a worldwide review of our anticorruption program," said Tovar. "We are taking a deep look at our policies and procedures in every country in which we operate. This includes developing and implementing recommendations for FCPA training, anticorruption safeguards, and internal controls. In a large global enterprise such as Walmart, sometimes issues arise despite our best efforts and intentions."

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