The Wal-Mart Scandal (Opinion)

by Talk Business & Politics ([email protected]) 72 views 

It’s still too early to know how the New York Times’ jaw-dropping report of widespread bribery of Mexican government officials by Wal-Mart de Mexico, and the home office’s decision to look the other way, will rank in the pantheon of corporate scandals.

At this point, we’d say it doesn’t reach the level of the BP oil spill two years ago — but barely a week in, we didn’t know how bad that was, either. Last week, federal prosecutors filed the first criminal charges in that case, against an engineer who destroyed evidence that BP was lying about the size of the spill.

Nor do the allegations compare to those made against Chiquita Brands International in 1998 by the Cincinnati Inquirer, accusations that included bribing foreign officials and much, much more. That report was later retracted in full, and the Inquirer paid a settlement of more than $10 million because its reporter had hacked into Chiquita’s voicemail.

While the Times carefully obscured the source of its insider information, you can bet it didn’t hack voicemails. That kind of thing, along with official bribery, has kept Rupert Murdoch and other News Corp. executives on the hot seat in England for nearly a year, forced the company to shut down a 168-year-old newspaper and doomed a multibillion-pound acquisition.

Anti-Wal-Mart forces — mainly associated with organized labor unions — have new ammunition and aren’t afraid to use it. And Wal-Mart defenders have pointed out — with some justification, no doubt — that bribery is simply a cost of doing business in some cultures, including Mexico’s.

That, of course, doesn’t mean that bribery isn’t illegal in Mexico, which has started an investigation, and here, under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enacted by Congress in 1977.

As usual, it might be an attempt to cover up the wrongdoing that causes Wal-Mart more pain, legal and reputational, than the wrongdoing itself.