In December 2011, Wal-Mart made the following generic disclosure in a 10-K filing.

“During fiscal 2012, the Company began conducting a voluntary internal review of its policies, procedures and internal controls pertaining to its global anti-corruption compliance program. As a result of information obtained during that review and from other sources, the Company has begun an internal investigation into whether certain matters, including permitting, licensing and inspections, were in compliance with the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The Company has engaged outside counsel and other advisors to assist in the review of these matters and has implemented, and is continuing to implement, appropriate remedial measures. The Company has voluntarily disclosed its internal investigation to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission. We cannot reasonably estimate the potential liability, if any, related to these matters. However, based on the facts currently known, we do not believe that these matters will have a material adverse effect on our business, financial condition, results of operations or cash flows.”

Today, the New York Times ran a major story (here) titled “Vast Mexico Bribery Case Hushed Up by Wal-Mart After Top-Level Struggle” that relates to Wal-Mart’s prior disclosure.  Was Wal-Mart’s disclosure to the DOJ, as stated in its December 10-K filing “voluntary”?  According to the Times article, “in December, after learning of The Times’s reporting in Mexico, Wal-Mart informed the Justice Department that it had begun an internal investigation into possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.”  (emphasis added).

The conduct at issue in the Times article relates to Wal-Mart’s largest foreign subsidiary, Wal-Mart de Mexico (“Wal-Mart Mexico), and suggests that Wal-Mart Mexico “orchestrated a campaign of bribery to win market dominance” and that the entity “paid bribes to obtain permits in virtually every corner” of Mexico.

According to the article, in 2005, “Wal-Mart dispatched investigators to Mexico City, and within days they unearthed evidence of widespread bribery. They found a paper trail of hundreds of suspect payments totaling more than $24 million. They also found documents showing that Wal-Mart de Mexico’s top executives not only knew about the payments, but had taken steps to conceal them from Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.”  According to the Times, Wal-Mart’s lead investigator, a former FBI agent, “recommended that Wal-Mart expand the investigation” but its own examination found that ”Wal-Mart’s leaders shut it down.”  The article states that “in one meeting where the bribery case was discussed, H. Lee Scott Jr., then Wal-Mart’s chief executive, rebuked internal investigators for being overly aggressive.”

The Times examination included more than 15 hours of interviews with Sergio Cicero Zapata a former executive who resigned from Wal-Mart Mexico in 2004 after nearly a decade in the company’s real estate department.  The article states as follows.  “In the interviews, 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.”

Elsewhere, the Times article states as follows.  “The idea, [Cicero] said, was to build hundreds of new stores so fast that competitors would not have time to react. Bribes, he explained, accelerated growth. They got zoning maps changed. They made environmental objections vanish. Permits that typically took months to process magically materialized in days. ‘What we were buying was time,’ he said. ”  The article states that Cicero’s “allegations were all the more startling because he implicated himself” and ”helped funnel bribes through trusted fixers, known as ‘gestores.’”

The times article contains several internal documents including Willkie Farr & Gallagher’s 2005 ”investigative work plan” that called for tracing all payments to anyone who helped Wal-Mart Mexico obtain permits for the previous five years.  The Times article states as follows.  “In short, Willkie Farr recommended the kind of independent, spare-no-expense investigation major corporations routinely undertake when confronted with allegations of serious wrongdoing by top executives. Wal-Mart’s leaders rejected this approach. Instead, records show, they decided Wal-Mart’s lawyers would supervise a far more limited ‘preliminary inquiry’ by in-house investigators.”

According to the Times article, in 2006, Wal-Mart again considered a full investigation of the conduct in Mexico, but that in the end, the company largely delegated responsibility for the investigation to Wal-Mart Mexico.  The Times article quotes a person with knowledge of the thinking of Wal-Mart executives as follows.  “It’s a Mexican issue; it’s better to let it be a Mexican response.”

The Times article contains a detailed statement by Wal-Mart.  Among other things, the Wal-Mart statement notes that “many of the alleged activities in the New York Times article are more than six years old” and that “in a large global enterprise such as Walmart, sometimes issues arise despite our best efforts and intentions.”  The statement continues as follows. ”When they do, we take them seriously and act quickly to understand what happened.  We take action and work to implement changes so the issue doesn’t happen again.  That’s what we’re doing today.”

See here for Wal-Mart’s video response to the New York Times article.

*****

The New York Times article paints a troubling picture for Wal-Mart that will likely occupy the company for years to come.  In addition to the Mexico conduct, the DOJ and SEC will surely be interested in the response (or lack thereof) by company executives in Arkansas as well as the results of Wal-Mart’s worldwide review of its operations.

The DOJ and SEC frequently bring FCPA enforcement actions premised on payments to obtain foreign licenses, permits and the like.  For instance see here (and embedded posts therein) for the numerous Panalpina related enforcement actions in 2010.  See here at pages 972-975  for a listing of such cases 2007-2009.

This despite the following relevant history.

The FCPA’s original definition of “foreign official” was as follows. “… any officer or employee of a foreign government or any department, agency, or instrumentality thereof, or any person acting in an official capacity for or on behalf of such government or department, agency or instrumentality. Such terms do not include any employee of a foreign government or any department, agency, or instrumentality thereof whose duties are essentially ministerial or clerical.”

This last sentence was the FCPA’s original (albeit indirect) facilitating payment or grease exception. The relevant House Report states in pertinent part as follows: “… a gratuity paid to a customs official to speed the processing of a customs document would not be reached by this bill. Nor would it reach payments made to secure permits, licenses, or the expeditious performance of similar duties of an essentially ministerial or clerical nature which must be performed in any event.”

When Congress amended the FCPA in 1988 it, among other things, amended the definition of foreign official by removing this indirect facilitating payment exception from the “foreign official” definition by creating a stand-alone facilitating payment exception currently found in the statute.

The relevant House Report indicates that Congress did not seek to disturb Congress’s original intent. “The policy adopted by Congress in 1977 remains valid, in terms of both U.S. law enforcement and foreign relations considerations. Any prohibition under U.S. law against this type of petty corruption would be exceedingly difficult to enforce, not only by U.S. prosecutors but by company officials themselves. Thus while such payments should not be condoned, they may appropriately be excluded from the reach of the FCPA. U.S. enforcement resources should be devoted to activities have much greater impact on foreign policy.”

Also relevant is the holding of U.S. v. Kay, the only appellate court decision to directly address payments outside the context of directly securing a foreign government contract.  In Kay, the 5th Circuit said that such payments “could” violate the FCPA, but that “there are bound to be circumstances” in which such payments merely increase the profitability of an existing profitable company and thus, presumably does not assist the payer in obtaining or retaining business.  The court specifically stated as follows.  “If the government is correct that anytime operating costs are reduced the beneficiary of such advantage is assisted in getting or keeping business, the FCPA’s language that expresses the necessary element of assisting in obtaining or retaining business would be unnecessary, and thus surplusage – a conclusion that we are forbidden to reach.”