Mexican Agency Rules in Wal-Mart Case

Retailer was virtually exonerated of any guilt involving alleged bribery payouts to help hasten its expansion.

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s Federal Comptroller’s Office (SFP) on Monday virtually exonerated Wal-Mart de México y Centroamérica of any guilt involving alleged bribery payouts to help hasten its expansion in Mexico.

This story first appeared in the November 27, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“The biggest part of the case is closed though there are two smaller investigations pending,” an SFP spokesman told WWD. “The biggest and most serious part of the investigation is over, however.”

The SFP, or Secretaria de Funcion Publica, which launched the probe in April, “has found no proof that Wal-Mart paid any bribes to Mexican public officials” the spokesman added.

The SFP said “no traces of corruption” were found in Wal-Mart’s permits or license procurement process to open new stores in Mexico or “extraordinary” payouts to officials that would benefit its operations or expansion in the country.

In April, a New York Times article reported that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. executives at the retailer’s Bentonville, Ark., headquarters covered up $24 million in alleged bribes paid to Mexican regional government officials to help expedite store-building permits for Wal-Mart.

The bribery scandal sent Wal-Mart de México’s shares plummeting and prompted U.S. and Mexican officials to open a wide-ranging probe about the case. In the U.S., the Securities and Exchange Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice and Congress are investigating Wal-Mart over potential breaches of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). The SEC and DOJ could not be reached for comment.

Wal-Mart also has launched an investigation into its business practices worldwide, focusing on Mexico, China, Brazil, South Africa and India.

The scandal also forced Wal-Mart to curtail its Mexican expansion, analysts said. In June, the company said it would open 325 to 335 stores in Mexico and Central America this year, down from plans to roll out 410 to 426 units.

Wal-Mart de México opened 233 stores between 2001 and 2005, the period in which the alleged bribes took place. However, its growth was even more spectacular during 2005 to 2011, when it opened more than 900 stores in the country, according to analysts.

One of the biggest claims against Wal-Mart was that it paid officials at Environment Secretariat (Semarnat) to more quickly obtain environmental permits to open stores. The SFP spokesman said the investigation revealed Semarnat officials did not engage in corruption in this regard.

An SFP probe into alleged payouts of public officials at other government institutions including the economy, labor and foreign relations ministries (as well as tax collection agency SAT, the electricity commission CFE and Mexico’s Social Security administration IMSS) also found no anomalies, the spokesman added.

However, Mexico’s attorney general, or PGR, which also has an investigation into the allegations, has yet to issue its results. A PGR spokesman declined to comment.

Wal-Mart de México also declined to comment. However, its communications director, Antonio Ocaranza, told Mexican newspaper El Universal over the weekend that Wal-Mart had not received any SFP updates about the case.

He said Wal-Mart would wait until the entire case is resolved before commenting. He added the company is cooperating with Mexican law-enforcement authorities to resolve the case and continues to pursue its own internal investigations into the matter.