Wal-Mart's CEO Mike Duke, who was over the company's international division at the time of the investigation, could also face intense scrutiny, experts say. As could H. Lee Scott Jr., who was CEO at the time of the allegations and remains on Wal-Mart's board.
According to the Times story, Scott rebuked internal investigators at one meeting for being overly aggressive. Shortly after, according to the paper, the investigation turned over the investigation to the general counsel for Wal-Mart de Mexico, who himself was alleged to have authorized bribes. He exonerated his fellow executives, according to the Times story.
Kevin Abikoff, anti-corruption and internal investigations practice group at law firm Hughes Hubbard & Reed, said that the government will decide whether to file criminal charges against the company and its executives based on whether they tried to cover-up the allegations, including destruction of records or accounting irregularities.
Abikoff said the government is usually more lenient when a company discloses wrong-doing rather than when it tries to cover up the violations.
"The government can't tolerate that behavior," he said. "It's usually the cover-up that kills."
Either way, the charges could be a headache for Wal-Mart, based at a time when the Bentonville, Ark.-based company is depending more on emerging markets like Mexico to fuel its growth and offset sluggish sales in the U.S.
The company, which faces fierce competition from dollar stores to online rivals like Amazon.com, is focused on expanding internationally: That portion of the business accounted for more than a quarter of its overall sales of $418.9 billion in its latest fiscal year.
The company's international business, which enjoyed a 15.2 percent increase last year, has had the fastest growth compared to its Wal-Mart U.S. business and Sam's Club division. In particular, Mexico, which it entered in 1991, has been a strong market: Wal-Mart de Mexico is now Wal-Mart's largest subsidiary, and one out of every five Wal-Mart stores is now in Mexico.
If there is a lengthy government investigation, it could increase the monitoring of its businesses in other regions like China and Brazil, which could hamper its international growth. Additionally, any penalties would be a financial pain for Wal-Mart, which recently reversed more than two years of sales declines at its namesake U.S. business.
"This is going to be a major distraction for Wal-Mart," said Leonard Baynes, professor at business law at St. John's University.
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