Wal-Mart’s Big, Fat Bribery Scandal

The New York Times is out today with a couple of monster investigative stories, one on a major bribery scandal involving officials of Wal-Mart and the Mexican government, and another on the American Legislative Exchange Council, of which Wal-Mart remains a stalwart member, even as a cadre of big corporations make their exodus from the group that peddled the legislation that became Florida’s infamous “Stand Your Ground” law.

The Wal-Mart story, reported by the outstanding David Barstow (who was among the first to report on ties between the Tea Party movement and militia groups), centers on revelations about years of bribes paid to Mexican officials in Wal-Mart’s quest for “market dominance” in Mexico. In 2005, a lawyer who had overseen the permitting process for construction of Wal-Mart’s Mexican stores provided Wal-Mart honchos with detailed evidence of shady dealings, Barstow writes, setting off an internal investigation that documented “suspect payments totaling more than $24 million.” According to Barstow:

The lead investigator recommended that Wal-Mart expand the investigation.

Instead, an examination by The New York Times found, Wal-Mart’s leaders shut it down.

“Neither American nor Mexican law enforcement officials were notified,” Barstow writes, explaining:

Under fire from labor critics, worried about press leaks and facing a sagging stock price, Wal-Mart’s leaders recognized that the allegations could have devastating consequences, documents and interviews show. Wal-Mart de Mexico was the company’s brightest success story, pitched to investors as a model for future growth. (Today, one in five Wal-Mart stores is in Mexico.) Confronted with evidence of corruption in Mexico, top Wal-Mart executives focused more on damage control than on rooting out wrongdoing.

And it’s no wonder that Wal-Mart is targeted by labor: Wal-Mart is so ruthlessly anti-union, the Wall Street Journal reported, that “[a]fter butchers at a Jacksonville, Texas, Wal-Mart voted to unionize in 2000, Wal-Mart eliminated all U.S. meat-cutting departments.”

For Wal-Mart in 2012, April would seem to be the cruelest month, given Barstow’s epic New York Times investigation, and the media attention on its continued involvement in the anti-labor, pro-gun, anti-immigrant ALEC. Then there’s David Moberg’s though-provoking piece in The American Prospect on “the Wal-Mart effect” on global economics, labor practices and local economies. Here’s a taste:

Beyond its economic impact, Wal-Mart is notorious for censoring the books and recordings it stocks, excluding some presumably for their progressive political leanings and demanding bowdlerized versions of others. As historian Bethany Moreton recounts in To Serve God and Wal-Mart, the company has promoted an amalgam of evangelical Christianity and free–market ideology in colleges and elsewhere and draws much of its management from this cultural milieu. More recently, it has ventured into electoral politics with large political donations, mobilization against politicians supporting the Employee Free Choice Act (including heavy-handed pressure on its own employees), and the promotion of its own version of “Wal-Mart Moms” as a key swing constituency (an implicit buffer against attacks of its treatment of employees).

Perhaps news of Wal-Mart’s bribery scandal — whose cover-up looks an awful lot like an obstruction-of-justice scandal — will convince company executives to cut their PR losses, and finally quit ALEC.