Wal-Mart Says Bribe Probe Cost $439 Million in Two Years

Wal-Mart in Mexico
In November 2011, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. disclosed possible violations in Mexico to the U.S. Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission. Photographer: David Rochkind/Bloomberg

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, said it spent $439 million in the past two years to investigate the possible payment of foreign bribes, making it one of the most expensive probes in U.S. history.

The company spent $282 million in the fiscal year ended Jan. 31 and $157 million the previous year, and expenses will continue to rise, according to an annual report filed March 21. On Feb. 20, Wal-Mart projected FCPA probe and compliance costs would be $200 million to $240 million for fiscal 2015.

In November 2011, Wal-Mart disclosed possible violations in Mexico to the U.S. Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission. The New York Times reported in 2012 that the retailer paid $24 million in alleged bribes in Mexico. The probe expanded to other countries, including China, India and Brazil, the retailer said in 2012.

The U.S. is investigating possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bans payments by companies or their agents to foreign governments to obtain or retain business. Such probes typically end in settlements, with companies paying fines and admitting wrongdoing.

Mexican authorities also are investigating, while Wal-Mart faces shareholder lawsuits and is examining its global anti-corruption compliance programs.

No Estimate

“While we believe that it is probable that we will incur a loss from these matters, given the ongoing nature and complexity of the review, inquiries and investigations, we cannot reasonably estimate any loss or range of loss that may arise from these matters,” according to the filing.

David Tovar, a spokesman for Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart, said it would be “inappropriate” to comment on the investigation before it is concluded.

“We are working aggressively to enhance our global compliance program and are committed to having a strong and effective program in every market in which we operate,” Tovar said today in an e-mail.

Wal-Mart’s fourth-quarter net income fell 21 percent to $4.43 billion, or $1.36 a share, from $5.61 billion, or $1.67, a year earlier, the company said in its most recent earnings release. The company forecast profit in the year through January 2015 that trailed analysts’ estimates.

Store Expansions

In addition to the $24 million in alleged bribes, Wal-Mart made $16 million in “donations” to Mexican local governments as late as 2005 to speed store expansions, the New York Times reported in April 2012. The company also failed to examine fully claims by a company lawyer in 2005 that he funneled bribes to Mexican officials, the newspaper reported.

“It’s relatively safe to assume that this is one of the highest pre-enforcement-action professional fees and expenses ever reported,” said Michael Koehler, a law professor at Southern Illinois University who writes the FCPA Professor blog.

In 2008, Siemens AG, Europe’s largest engineering company, agreed to pay $800 million to the U.S. and $814 million to German authorities as part of a crackdown on bribery. During the course of the probe, Siemens spent $1 billion on attorneys and accountants and its internal controls.

“Companies under FCPA scrutiny have to take it seriously and hire lawyers, auditors and compliance specialists,” Koehler said. “But when companies are paying more than $1 million per working day, one can legitimately ask the question: Has this turned into a boondoggle for everyone involved?”

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