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Walmart checking compliance with U.S. bribery law

Walmart store signage is seen from the store lot on April 23, 2012 in Mexico City, Mexico. Walmart named a former U.S. attorney earlier this year to check compliance with a U.S. bribery law. But is the U.S. law behind the times?

CORRECTION: The original version of this story did not make clear that Homer Moyer, a lawyer with Miller & Chevalier, is not affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's effort to revise a law on corporations paying bribes overseas. The text has been corrected.

Tess Vigeland: Looks like we may need to start up a new beat in the newsroom: The Bribery Desk. We have Walmart reportedly paying to play in Mexico, and now the SEC is looking into Hollywood studios paying officials in China to get access to theaters there. So what is bribery, and who's on the hook for it? May sound like simple questions, but they're not. First up on the corruption beat: Marketplace's Scott Tong.


Scott Tong: Ours was one the first countries to pass a bribery law, in 1977, after a great big scandal involving a company paying in exchange for results, says Andy Spalding at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

 

Andy Spalding: Defense contractor Lockheed paid bribes to win contracts in Italy, the Netherlands, and in Japan. And of course they were highly embarrassing to Lockheed.

In the last decade, the Feds have busted more and more firms -- in energy, in infrastructure. And given the new cases, perhaps now-dirty deeds in global retail and movies. But isn’t bribery simply how its done in those places? Does our law handicap our companies?

Spalding: It puts companies at a comparative disadvantage. Companies do less business in developing countries as enforcement steps up.

That’s up for debate. But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- a lobby heavyweight -- wants big changes. Homer Moyer of the firm Miller & Chevalier described the argument: companies can’t always control what their far-flung employees are doing.

Homer Moyer: If a company has a compliance program in place, and is nonetheless found to have been paying bribes to foreign officials, that it could not be prosecuted.

Moyer's firm does not represent the chamber. Companies involved in the chamber effort include GE, ExxonMobil and Walmart. But the Walmart bribery case undercuts their effort on Capitol Hill, figures Heather Lowe at the nonprofit Global Financial Integrity.

Heather Lowe: You are looking at kicking the can down the road a bit in terms of whether or not anyone in Congress is going to be willing to touch this issue.

The issue of bribery -- another one of those world’s oldest professions. In Washington, I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.
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