By James B. Stewart
The lack of individual accountability in criminal bribery cases — not to mention the entire financial crisis — has been an ongoing concern of mine, so when news broke that Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, had found itself at the center of a bribery scandal, I knew I had a column.
Less than a year ago, I wrote about a similar case involving Tyson Foods. It was an all-too-typical example of a company that didn’t dispute that it had bribed Mexican officials or that it had covered it up. As usual, no individuals were charged. The Justice Department and SEC wouldn’t even name the people involved. I spent weeks investigating their identities and revealed them. I thought I was able to strike a blow, albeit a small one, for justice. I also worried that having a company pay a relatively small fine would do little to deter misconduct because it is people – not companies – who commit crimes.
This week, along came the Wal-Mart Mexican bribery case, exposed in a terrific front-page story in The New York Times by David Barstow. Is it any wonder that Wal-Mart would have looked at Tyson, its Arkansas neighbor, and decided to sweep the whole thing under the rug?
I wondered whether the government might be more vigilant in holding people accountable this time around. I spoke with law professor Andrew Spalding at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, who specializes in foreign bribery cases. He told me that he had found that in over 60% of companies that had settled foreign bribery charges since 2005, no individuals had been charged. That was a statistic that caught my attention, and it helped inspire my column this week.
Read James B. Stewart’s full column in The New York Times here.