House Democrats expand Wal-Mart probe to include trade groups

Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) are expanding their probe of Wal-Mart’s business practices abroad to two prominent Washington trade groups.

In separate letters sent Wednesday to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), the two lawmakers ask for documents and the names of staff members who have worked on the lobbying campaign centered on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). The law bans bribery of foreign government officials.

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“It would appear to be a conflict of interest for Wal-Mart officials to advise on ways to weaken the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act at a time when the leadership of the company was apparently aware of corporate conduct that may have violated the law,” Waxman and Cummings wrote in their letter to Tom Donohue, the Chamber’s president and CEO.

Waxman is the ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Cummings is the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

On Saturday, The New York Times published an article saying that Wal-Mart bribed Mexican government officials in order to win market dominance in the country. That inspired a letter sent earlier this week to Wal-Mart from Cummings and Waxman, asking for meetings with company officials by the end of this week.

The Justice Department is reportedly investigating Wal-Mart’s Mexican subsidiary over paying more than $24 million in bribes to win construction permits there.

In their letter to the trade groups on Wednesday, Cummings and Waxman cited a Washington Post article that described Wal-Mart’s involvement in a lobbying campaign by the Chamber to amend the anti-bribery law. RILA was one of the supporters of that lobbying effort.

One of the Wal-Mart executives on which the bribery allegations have centered, Thomas Hyde, once sat on the board of the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform. Bill Simon, Wal-Mart’s president and CEO, sits on RILA’s board.

The lawmakers gave the two business associations a deadline of May 9 to respond to their document requests.

A RILA spokesman said the trade group will cooperate with the investigation.

“We have received the request and we will respond to it in a timely fashion,” said Brian Dodge, the RILA spokesman.

Dodge said RILA has “constructively participated” in a dialogue with the Justice Department about the anti-bribery law.

“RILA believes that adherence to the law is essential and that further clarity and predictability regarding FCPA enforcement will help to ensure such compliance,” Dodge said.

Bryan Quigley, a spokesman for the Chamber's Institute for Legal Reform, said the group received the letter from several news outlets.

“We anticipate responding in the very near future," Quigley said.

Quigley said the group's efforts "to clarify and strengthen the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act have been long-standing and are on behalf of the entire business community." 

"While the law serves an important purpose, its ambiguities and current enforcement practices make it more difficult for American businesses to compete in an increasingly global marketplace," Quigley said. “Giving businesses guidance as to the law’s scope and encouraging companies to develop robust compliance programs will strengthen the FCPA, while creating an environment that encourages economic growth and U.S. jobs."

— This story was updated at 4:24 p.m. with comment from the Chamber of Commerce.