By David Ingram
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc pushed back on Wednesday against suggestions that its lobbyists tried to scale back a U.S. anti-bribery law while the company was aware it may have violated the law.
The company said it "never lobbied on" possible changes to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the law that makes it a crime for U.S. companies to pay bribes overseas.
Wal-Mart played down its presence on the boards of lobbying organizations that are critical of how the anti-bribery law is enforced. Businesses have increasingly agitated against the law in recent years, saying it is vague.
"Simply because Wal-Mart is a member of an organization does not mean we agree with every position they take," spokesman David Tovar said.
The statement was issued as a split emerged among lawmakers on whether they should probe Wal-Mart for how it juggled the criminal and political dimensions of allegations that its Mexico unit paid bribes in violation of the law. Prosecutors are investigating the alleged bribes.
Authorities in Mexico said on Wednesday they would open an investigation into allegations that Wal-Mart's Mexican unit, Walmex, bribed officials to expand its business. The federal comptroller's office said it had begun checking the paperwork and permits obtained to open and operate stores.
On the lobbying issue, Democratic Representative Henry Waxman said he was troubled by the company's ties.
"It would appear to be a conflict of interest for Wal-Mart officials to advise on ways to weaken the law at the same time as the company was aware of conduct that may have violated the law," Waxman said in an interview.
He and Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings sent letters on Wednesday to two lobbying organizations, the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, asking how much input Wal-Mart had on their deliberations about the anti-bribery law.
Cummings said that Wal-Mart, in its lobbying, may have been "easing out of a situation where they stand to be criminally and civilly liable."
But Republican Representative Darrell Issa, the chairman of a key investigative panel, said there would be no investigation. He said he would not make the lobbying groups answer questions, advising them to "write a scathing letter back" to Democrats.
Defending Wal-Mart, Issa added: "Bashing private enterprise for trying to expand and make a profit on behalf of their stockholders seems to me to be a goal that I don't really understand."
The retail and legal lobbying groups, both of which work on a wide array of issues besides the anti-bribery law, said they were preparing to respond to the lawmakers.
CALLS TO SCALE BACK THE LAW
The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform has been active since 2010 in asking prosecutors and lawmakers to scale back or clarify parts of the anti-bribery law. Those efforts "have been longstanding and are on behalf of the entire business community," spokesman Bryan Quigley said.
The Retail Industry Leaders Association, which signed a letter in February calling on prosecutors to explain parts of the law, "has constructively participated in this ongoing dialogue," spokesman Brian Dodge said.
In addition to serving on the two groups' boards, Wal-Mart sent its chief compliance officer, Phyllis Harris, to a panel discussion in November co-hosted by the retailers. The panel addressed regulatory issues, including the anti-bribery law, but Harris limited her comments to environmental issues, panel moderator and Miami lawyer Jacey Kaps told Reuters.
The National Foreign Trade Council is a third trade group that counts Wal-Mart as a board member and that has pushed for clarification of the anti-bribery law. Council President Bill Reinsch said Wal-Mart "played no role in that issue to my knowledge."
Individual corporations have rarely spoken up about the anti-bribery law, even as some have paid hundreds of millions of dollars to settle alleged violations.
Stefanie Ostfeld, policy adviser for Global Witness, an anti-corruption group, said a group like the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform "is able to be the front" on a difficult subject. "We don't know which individual members within the chamber have been leading the charge," she said.
(Additional reporting by Jessica Wohl; Editing by Ron Popeski)