Ethical Leadership and Business Integrity Education Case Study and Commentary What happens when trust is broken?

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Ethical Leadership and Business Integrity Education

Case Study and Commentary

What happens when trust is broken?

John Preli

Director, Corporate Trust and Compliance
July 1, 2014


This case study
is intended for educational purposes only.

All information has been obtained from publically available sources, as noted in the referenced materials. This case is being used to illustrate the risks of conducting business in emerging geographies and the importance of creating a culture of trust and integrity across an enterprise. This case is not intended to make judgments about Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart Executives or Wal-Mart's Internal Audit & Compliance Programs. Neither Wal-Mart nor any Wal-Mart Executives have been charged with wrongdoing and the allegations are currently being investigated.

Outline of Materials

U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Provisions

Summary of U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act provisions

New York Times Article, dated April 21, 2012

Reprint of New York Times article, dated April 21, 2012 entitled,

At Wal-Mart in Mexico, a Bribe Inquiry Silenced.

Wal-Mart Response to New York Times Article, dated April 24, 2012

Other Articles published in the press following the April 21, 2012 New York Times Article

Reprint of Wal-Mart’s response to the New York Times article referenced immediately above.

Reprints of several other articles published in the press since the New York Times article of April 21, 2012 was published.

New York Times Article, dated December 18, 2012

Wal-Mart 2014 Global Compliance Program Report

Reprint of New York Times article dated December 18, 2012 entitled The Bribery Aisle: How Wal-Mart Got Its Way in Mexico

Reprint of Wal-Mart’s 2014 Global Compliance Program

Note: Reference separate .pdf file

Questions to consider when reviewing Wal-Mart Case and reference materials

U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act
Anti-Bribery Provision:

Prohibits anyone subject to U.S. jurisdiction from, directly or indirectly, paying or offering, or authorizing of payment or offer of money or anything of value, corruptly, to a foreign official in order to influence or to gain an improper advantage, for the purpose of obtaining, retaining or directing business.

Books and Records Provision:
Requires U.S. issuers to -

  • Make and keep books, records and accounts which, in reasonable detail, accurately and fairly reflect the transactions and dispositions of the issuer’s assets

  • Devise and maintain a system of internal accounting controls that meets the statute's requirements

Reprint of New York Times Article:

April 21, 2012
Vast Mexico Bribery Case Hushed Up by Wal-Mart After Top-Level Struggle

Confronted with evidence of widespread corruption in Mexico, top Wal-Mart executives focused more on damage control than on rooting out wrongdoing, an examination by The New York Times found.

Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab & James C. McKinley Jr. contributed reporting from Mexico City.

MEXICO CITY - In September 2005, a senior Wal-Mart lawyer received an alarming e-mail from a former executive at the company’s largest foreign subsidiary, Wal-Mart de Mexico. In the e-mail and follow-up conversations, the former executive described how Wal-Mart de Mexico had orchestrated a campaign of bribery to win market dominance. In its rush to build stores, he said, the company had paid bribes to obtain permits in virtually every corner of the country.

The former executive gave names, dates and bribe amounts. He knew so much, he explained, because for years he had been the lawyer in charge of obtaining construction permits for Wal-Mart de Mexico.
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. In a confidential report to his superiors, Wal-Mart’s lead investigator, a former F.B.I. special agent, summed up their initial findings this way: “There is reasonable suspicion to believe that Mexican and USA laws have been violated.”
The lead investigator recommended that Wal-Mart expand the investigation.
Instead, an examination by The New York Times found, Wal-Mart’s leaders shut it down.

Neither American nor Mexican law enforcement officials were notified. None of Wal-Mart de Mexico’s leaders were disciplined. Indeed, its chief executive, Eduardo Castro-Wright, identified by the former executive as the driving force behind years of bribery, was promoted to vice chairman of Wal-Mart in 2008. Until this article, the allegations and Wal-Mart’s investigation had never been publicly disclosed.

But The Times’s examination uncovered a prolonged struggle at the highest levels of Wal-Mart, a struggle that pitted the company’s much publicized commitment to the highest moral and ethical standards against its relentless pursuit of growth.
Under fire from labor critics, worried about press leaks and facing a sagging stock price, Wal-Mart’s leaders recognized that the allegations could have devastating consequences, documents and interviews show. Wal-Mart de Mexico was the company’s brightest success story, pitched to investors as a model for future growth. (Today, one in five Wal-Mart stores is in Mexico.) Confronted with evidence of corruption in Mexico, top Wal-Mart executives focused more on damage control than on rooting out wrongdoing.
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. Days later, records show, Wal-Mart’s top lawyer arranged to ship the internal investigators’ files on the case to Mexico City. Primary responsibility for the investigation was then given to the general counsel of Wal-Mart de Mexico — a remarkable choice since the same general counsel was alleged to have authorized bribes.
The general counsel promptly exonerated his fellow Wal-Mart de Mexico executives.
When Wal-Mart’s director of corporate investigations — a former top F.B.I. official — read the general counsel’s report, his appraisal was scathing. “Truly lacking,” he wrote in an e-mail to his boss.
The report was nonetheless accepted by Wal-Mart’s leaders as the last word on the matter.

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, a federal law that makes it a crime for American corporations and their subsidiaries to bribe foreign officials. Wal-Mart said the company had learned of possible problems with how it obtained permits, but stressed that the issues were limited to “discrete” cases.

“We do not believe that these matters will have a material adverse effect on our business,” the company said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
But The Times’s examination found credible evidence that bribery played a persistent and significant role in Wal-Mart’s rapid growth in Mexico, where Wal-Mart now employs 209,000 people, making it the country’s largest private employer.
A Wal-Mart spokesman confirmed that the company’s Mexico operations — and its handling of the 2005 case — were now a major focus of its inquiry.
“If these allegations are true, it is not a reflection of who we are or what we stand for,” the spokesman, David W. Tovar, said. “We are deeply concerned by these allegations and are working aggressively to determine what happened.”
In the meantime, Mr. Tovar said, Wal-Mart is taking steps in Mexico to strengthen compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. “We do not and will not tolerate noncompliance with F.C.P.A. anywhere or at any level of the company,” he said.
The Times laid out this article’s findings to Wal-Mart weeks ago. The company said it shared the findings with many of the executives named here, including Mr. Scott, now on Wal-Mart’s board, and Mr. Castro-Wright, who is retiring in July. Both men declined to comment, Mr. Tovar said.
The Times obtained hundreds of internal company documents tracing the evolution of Wal-Mart’s 2005 Mexico investigation. The documents show Wal-Mart’s leadership immediately recognized the seriousness of the allegations. Working in secrecy, a small group of executives, including several current members of Wal-Mart’s senior management, kept close tabs on the inquiry.

Michael T. Duke, Wal-Mart’s current chief executive, was also kept informed. At the time, Mr. Duke had just been put in charge of Wal-Mart International, making him responsible for all foreign subsidiaries. “You’ll want to read this,” a top Wal-Mart lawyer wrote in an Oct. 15, 2005, e-mail to Mr. Duke that gave a detailed description of the former executive’s allegations.

The Times examination included more than 15 hours of interviews with the former executive, Sergio Cicero Zapata, who resigned from Wal-Mart de Mexico in 2004 after nearly a decade in the company’s real estate department.
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.
He called it working “the dark side of the moon.”
The Times also reviewed thousands of government documents related to permit requests for stores across Mexico. The examination found many instances where permits were given within weeks or even days of Wal-Mart de Mexico’s payments to the two lawyers. Again and again, The Times found, legal and bureaucratic obstacles melted away after payments were made.
The Times conducted extensive interviews with participants in Wal-Mart’s investigation. They spoke on the condition that they not be identified discussing matters Wal-Mart has long shielded. These people said the investigation left little doubt Mr. Cicero’s allegations were credible. (“Not even a close call,” one person said.)
But, they said, the more investigators corroborated his assertions, the more resistance they encountered inside Wal-Mart. Some of it came from powerful executives implicated in the corruption, records and interviews show. Other top executives voiced concern about the possible legal and reputational harm.

In the end, people involved in the investigation said, Wal-Mart’s leaders found a bloodlessly bureaucratic way to bury the matter. But in handing the investigation off to one of its main targets, they disregarded the advice of one of Wal-Mart’s top lawyers, the same lawyer first contacted by Mr. Cicero.

“The wisdom of assigning any investigative role to management of the business unit being investigated escapes me,” Maritza I. Munich, then general counsel of Wal-Mart International, wrote in an e-mail to top Wal-Mart executives.
The investigation, she urged, should be completed using “professional, independent investigative resources.”
The Allegations Emerge
On Sept. 21, 2005, Mr. Cicero sent an e-mail to Ms. Munich telling her he had information about “irregularities” authorized “by the highest levels” at Wal-Mart de Mexico. “I hope to meet you soon,” he wrote.
Ms. Munich was familiar with the challenges of avoiding corruption in Latin America. Before joining Wal-Mart in 2003, she had spent 12 years in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America as a lawyer for Procter & Gamble.
At Wal-Mart in 2004, she pushed the board to adopt a strict anticorruption policy that prohibited all employees from “offering anything of value to a government official on behalf of Wal-Mart.” It required every employee to report the first sign of corruption, and it bound Wal-Mart’s agents to the same exacting standards.
Ms. Munich reacted quickly to Mr. Cicero’s e-mail. Within days, she hired Juan Francisco Torres-Landa, a prominent Harvard-trained lawyer in Mexico City, to debrief Mr. Cicero. The two men met three times in October 2005, with Ms. Munich flying in from Bentonville for the third debriefing.
During hours of questioning, Mr. Torres-Landa’s notes show, Mr. Cicero described how Wal-Mart de Mexico had perfected the art of bribery, then hidden it all with fraudulent accounting. Mr. Cicero implicated many of Wal-Mart de Mexico’s leaders, including its board chairman, its general counsel, its chief auditor and its top real estate executive.

But the person most responsible, he told Mr. Torres-Landa, was the company’s ambitious chief executive, Eduardo Castro-Wright, a native of Ecuador who was recruited from Honeywell in 2001 to become Wal-Mart’s chief operating officer in Mexico.

Mr. Cicero said that while bribes were occasionally paid before Mr. Castro-Wright’s arrival, their use soared after Mr. Castro-Wright ascended to the top job in 2002. Mr. Cicero described how Wal-Mart de Mexico’s leaders had set “very aggressive growth goals,” which required opening new stores “in record times.” Wal-Mart de Mexico executives, he said, were under pressure to do “whatever was necessary” to obtain permits.
In an interview with The Times, Mr. Cicero said Mr. Castro-Wright had encouraged the payments for a specific strategic purpose. The idea, he 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.
Wal-Mart de Mexico’s stunning growth made Mr. Castro-Wright a rising star in Bentonville. In early 2005, when he was promoted to a senior position in the United States, Mr. Duke would cite his “outstanding results” in Mexico.
Mr. Cicero’s allegations were all the more startling because he implicated himself. He spent hours explaining to Mr. Torres-Landa the mechanics of how he had helped funnel bribes through trusted fixers, known as “gestores.”

Gestores (pronounced hes-TORE-ehs) are a fixture in Mexico’s byzantine bureaucracies, and some are entirely legitimate. Ordinary citizens routinely pay gestores to stand in line for them at the driver’s license office. Companies hire them as quasi-lobbyists to get things done as painlessly as possible.

But often gestores play starring roles in Mexico’s endless loop of public corruption scandals. They operate in the shadows, dangling payoffs to officials of every rank. It was this type of gestor that Wal-Mart de Mexico deployed, Mr. Cicero said.

Mr. Cicero told Mr. Torres-Landa it was his job to recruit the gestores. He worked closely with them, sharing strategies on whom to bribe. He also approved Wal-Mart de Mexico’s payments to the gestores. Each payment covered the bribe and the gestor’s fee, typically 6 percent of the bribe.
It was all carefully monitored through a system of secret codes known only to a handful of Wal-Mart de Mexico executives.
The gestores submitted invoices with brief, vaguely worded descriptions of their services. But the real story, Mr. Cicero said, was told in codes written on the invoices. The codes identified the specific “irregular act” performed, Mr. Cicero explained to Mr. Torres-Landa. One code, for example, indicated a bribe to speed up a permit. Others described bribes to obtain confidential information or eliminate fines.
Each month, Mr. Castro-Wright and other top Wal-Mart de Mexico executives “received a detailed schedule of all of the payments performed,” he said, according to the lawyer’s notes. Wal-Mart de Mexico then “purified” the bribes in accounting records as simple legal fees.
They also took care to keep Bentonville in the dark. “Dirty clothes are washed at home,” Mr. Cicero said.
Mr. Torres-Landa explored Mr. Cicero’s motives for coming forward.
Mr. Cicero said he resigned in September 2004 because he felt underappreciated. He described the “pressure and stress” of participating in years of corruption, of contending with “greedy” officials who jacked up bribe demands.
As he told The Times, “I thought I deserved a medal at least.”

The breaking point came in early 2004, when he was passed over for the job of general counsel of Wal-Mart de Mexico. This snub, Mr. Torres-Landa wrote, “generated significant anger with respect to the lack of recognition for his work.” Mr. Cicero said he began to assemble a record of bribes he had helped orchestrate to “protect him in case of any complaint or investigation,” Mr. Torres-Landa wrote.

“We did not detect on his part any express statement about wishing to sell the information,” the lawyer added.
According to people involved in Wal-Mart’s investigation, Mr. Cicero’s account of criminality at the top of Wal-Mart’s most important foreign subsidiary was impossible to dismiss. He had clearly been in a position to witness the events he described. Nor was this the first indication of corruption at Wal-Mart de Mexico under Mr. Castro-Wright. A confidential investigation, conducted for Wal-Mart in 2003 by Kroll Inc., a leading investigation firm, discovered that Wal-Mart de Mexico had systematically increased its sales by helping favored high-volume customers evade sales taxes.
A draft of Kroll’s report, obtained by The Times, concluded that top Wal-Mart de Mexico executives had failed to enforce their own anticorruption policies, ignored internal audits that raised red flags and even disregarded local press accounts asserting that Wal-Mart de Mexico was “carrying out a tax fraud.” (The company ultimately paid $34.3 million in back taxes.)
Wal-Mart then asked Kroll to evaluate Wal-Mart de Mexico’s internal audit and antifraud units. Kroll wrote another report that branded the units “ineffective.” Many employees accused of wrongdoing were not even questioned; some “received a promotion shortly after the suspicions of fraudulent activities had surfaced.”
None of these findings, though, had slowed Mr. Castro-Wright’s rise.
Just days before Mr. Cicero’s first debriefing, Mr. Castro-Wright was promoted again. He was put in charge of all Wal-Mart stores in the United States, one of the most prominent jobs in the company. He also joined Wal-Mart’s executive committee, the company’s inner sanctum of leadership.

The Initial Response

Ms. Munich sent detailed memos describing Mr. Cicero’s debriefings to Wal-Mart’s senior management. These executives, records show, included Thomas A. Mars, Wal-Mart’s general counsel and a former director of the Arkansas State Police; Thomas D. Hyde, Wal-Mart’s executive vice president and corporate secretary; Michael Fung, Wal-Mart’s top internal auditor; Craig Herkert, the chief executive for Wal-Mart’s operations in Latin America; and Lee Stucky, a confidant of Lee Scott’s and chief administrative officer of Wal-Mart International.

Wal-Mart typically hired outside law firms to lead internal investigations into allegations of significant wrongdoing. It did so earlier in 2005, for example, when Thomas M. Coughlin, then vice chairman of Wal-Mart, was accused of padding his expense accounts and misappropriating Wal-Mart gift cards.
At first, Wal-Mart took the same approach with Mr. Cicero’s allegations. It turned to Willkie Farr & Gallagher, a law firm with extensive experience in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases.
The firm’s “investigation work plan” called for tracing all payments to anyone who had helped Wal-Mart de Mexico obtain permits for the previous five years. The firm said it would scrutinize “any and all payments” to government officials and interview every person who might know about payoffs, including “implicated members” of Wal-Mart de Mexico’s board.
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.

The inquiry, a confidential memo explained, would take two weeks, not the four months Willkie Farr proposed. Rather than examining years of permits, the team would look at a few specific stores. Interviews would be done “only when absolutely essential to establishing the bona fides” of Mr. Cicero. However, if the inquiry found a “likelihood” that laws had been violated, the company would then consider conducting a “full investigation.”
The decision gave Wal-Mart’s senior management direct control over the investigation. It also meant new responsibility for the company’s tiny and troubled Corporate Investigations unit.

The unit was ill-equipped to take on a major corruption investigation, let alone one in Mexico. It had fewer than 70 employees, and most were assigned to chasing shoplifting rings and corrupt vendors. Just four people were specifically dedicated to investigating corporate fraud, a number Joseph R. Lewis, Wal-Mart’s director of corporate investigations, described in a confidential memo as “wholly inadequate for an organization the size of Wal-Mart.”

But Mr. Lewis and his boss, Kenneth H. Senser, vice president for global security, aviation and travel, were working to strengthen the unit. Months before Mr. Cicero surfaced, they won approval to hire four “special investigators” who, according to their job descriptions, would be assigned the “most significant and complex fraud matters.” Mr. Scott, the chief executive, also agreed that Corporate Investigations would handle all allegations of misconduct by senior executives.
And yet in the fall of 2005, as Wal-Mart began to grapple with Mr. Cicero’s allegations, two cases called into question Corporate Investigations’ independence and role.
In October, Wal-Mart’s vice chairman, John B. Menzer, intervened in an internal investigation into a senior vice president who reported to him. According to internal records, Mr. Menzer told Mr. Senser he did not want Corporate Investigations to handle the case “due to concerns about the impact such an investigation would have.” One of the senior vice president’s subordinates, he said, “would be better suited to conduct this inquiry.” Soon after, records show, the subordinate cleared his boss.
The other case involved the president of Wal-Mart Puerto Rico. A whistle-blower had accused the president and other executives of mistreating employees. Although Corporate Investigations was supposed to investigate all allegations against senior executives, the president had instead assigned an underling to look into the complaints — but to steer clear of those against him.
Ms. Munich objected. In an e-mail to Wal-Mart executives, she complained that the investigation was “at the direction of the same company officer who is the target of several of the allegations.”

“We are in need of clear guidelines about how to handle these issues going forward,” she warned.

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