Wal-Mart has been probably been accused of more types of misconduct than any other large corporation. The latest additions to the list are bribery and obstruction of justice. In an 8,000-word exposé published recently in the New York Times, top executives at the giant retailer are reported to have thwarted and ultimately shelved an internal investigation of extensive bribes paid by lower-level company officials to expand Wal-Mart’s market share in Mexico.
While Wal-Mart’s outrageous behavior is often in a class by itself, the bribery aspects of the allegations are far from unique. In fact, Wal-Mart is actually a late arrival to a sizeable group of major corporations that have found themselves in legal jeopardy because of what in corporate circles are politely called questionable foreign payments.
That jeopardy has grown more significant in recent years as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice have stepped up enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or FCPA, which prohibits overseas bribery by U.S.-based corporations and foreign companies with a substantial presence in the United States.
It is often forgotten that the Watergate scandal of the 1970s was not only about the misdeeds of the Nixon Administration. Investigations by the Senate and the Watergate Special Prosecutor forced companies such as 3M, American Airlines and Goodyear Tire & Rubber to admit that they or their executives had made illegal contributions to the infamous Committee to Re-Elect the President.
Subsequent inquiries into illegal payments of all kinds led to revelations that companies such as Lockheed, Northrop and Gulf Oil had engaged in widespread foreign bribery. Under pressure from the SEC, more than 150 publicly traded companies admitted that they had been involved in questionable overseas payments or outright bribes to obtain contracts from foreign governments. A 1976 tally by the Council on Economic Priorities found that more than $300 million in such payments had been disclosed in what some were calling “the Business Watergate.”
While some observers insisted that a certain amount of baksheesh was necessary to making deals in many parts of the world, Congress responded to the revelations by enacting the FCPA in late 1977. For the first time, bribery of foreign government officials was a criminal offense under U.S. law, with fines up to $1 million and prison sentences of up to five years.
The ink was barely dry on the FCPA when U.S. corporations began to complain that it was putting them at a competitive disadvantage. The Carter Administration’s Justice Department responded by signaling that it would not be enforcing the FCPA too vigorously. That was one Carter policy that the Reagan Administration was willing to adopt. In fact, Reagan’s trade representative Bill Brock led an effort to get Congress to weaken the law, but the initiative failed.
The Clinton Administration took a different approach—trying to get other countries to adopt rules similar to the FCPA. In 1997 the industrial countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reached agreement on an anti-bribery convention. In subsequent years, the number of FCPA cases remained at a miniscule level—only a handful a year. Optimists were claiming this was because the law was having a remarkable deterrent effect. Skeptics said that companies were being more careful to conceal their bribes, and prosecutors were focused elsewhere.
Any illusion that commercial bribery was a rarity was dispelled in 2005, when former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker released the final results of the investigation he had been asked to conduct of the Oil-for-Food Program in Iraq. Volcker’s group found that more than half of the 4,500 companies participating in the program—which was supposed to ease the impact of Western sanctions on Iraq—had paid illegal surcharges and kickbacks to the government of Saddam Hussein. Among those companies were Siemens, DaimlerChrysler and the French bank BNP Paribas.
The Volcker investigation, the OECD convention, and the Sarbanes-Oxley law (whose mandates about financial controls made it more difficult to conceal improper payments) breathed new life into FCPA enforcement during the final years of the Bush Administration and after President Obama took office.
The turning point came in November 2007, when Chevron agreed to pay $30 million to settle charges about its role in Oil-for-Food corruption. Then, in late 2008, Siemens agreed to pay the Justice Department, the SEC and European authorities a record $1.6 billion in fines to settle charges that it had routinely paid bribes to secure large public works projects around the world. This was a huge payout in relation to previous FCPA penalties, yet it was a bargain in that the big German company avoided a guilty plea or conviction that would have disqualified it from continuing to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts.
In February 2009 Halliburton and its former subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root agreed to pay a total of $579 million to resolve allegations that they bribed government officials in Nigeria over a ten-year period. A year later, the giant British military contractor BAE Systems reached settlements totaling more than $400 million with the Justice Department and the UK Serious Fraud Office to resolve longstanding multi-country bribery allegations. In April 2010 Daimler and three of its subsidiaries paid $93 million to resolve FCPA charges. Other well-known companies that have settled similar bribery cases since the beginning of 2011 include Tyson Foods, IBM, and Johnson & Johnson. In most cases companies have followed the lead of Siemens in negotiating non-prosecution or deferred prosecution deals that avoided criminal convictions.
A quarter century after the Watergate investigation revealed a culture of corruption in the foreign dealings of major corporations, the new wave of FCPA prosecutions suggests that little has changed. There is one difference, however. Whereas the bribery revelations of the 1970s elicited a public outcry, the cases of the past few years have generated relatively little comment in the United States—except for the complaints of corporate apologists that the FCPA is too severe. Among those apologists are board members of the Institute for Legal Reform (a division of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), whose ranks have included the top ethics officer of Wal-Mart.
The Wal-Mart case could turn out to be a much bigger deal than previous FCPA cases—for the simple reason that the mega-retailer appears to have forgotten Watergate’s central lesson that the cover-up is often punished more severely than the crime. A company that has often avoided serious consequences for its past misconduct may finally pay a high price.