WASHINGTON - Wal-Mart Stores Inc is paying for lawyers to represent more than 30 of its executives involved in a foreign corruption investigation, according to people familiar with the matter, an unusually high number that shows the depth of the federal probe.
The US Department of Justice is investigating whether Wal-Mart paid bribes in Mexico to obtain permits to open new stores there, and whether executives covered up an internal inquiry into the payments. The department is also looking into possible misconduct by the world's largest retailer in Brazil, China and India.
In recent months, the US government has brought in a number of senior Wal-Mart executives for questioning, including officials from corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, the sources said. The move, along with widespread publicity about the probe, appears to have prompted executives to seek their own legal representation. The sources declined to name the executives who have submitted to interviews.
Wal-Mart confirmed that it is footing the legal bills for executives touched by the corruption probe, but the company declined to give any specifics.
While it is common for companies in bribery investigations to cover executives' legal costs, experts said the large number of attorneys hired in the Wal-Mart case suggests prosecutors are aggressively testing information that the company has turned over, and may be considering cases against multiple individuals.
"I've never heard of that many potential targets of an investigation no matter how big," said Richard Cassin, an anti-corruption lawyer and author of a popular blog on the law at issue, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
"Those numbers suggest DOJ is really digging deep," he said.
Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr declined to comment. The investigation is not close to a conclusion, and it is not clear if any individuals will ultimately face criminal charges.
Wal-Mart spokesman David Tovar said the investigation is ongoing and the company is cooperating with US authorities. He said it is not uncommon for individuals to retain counsel to advise them in such situations.
"It is inappropriate for us or others to come to conclusions until the investigation is completed," Tovar said.
The largest corporate foreign corruption case to date is Siemens AG's (SIEGn.DE: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) $1.6 billion settlement with the Justice Department and other authorities in 2008 over an alleged bribery scheme in Argentina. In that instance, around a dozen executives at the German engineering company had retained their own lawyers.
No individuals were initially charged, but after intense criticism from US lawmakers, eight former Siemens executives and agents of the company were indicted in 2011. Most of the defendants are in Argentina or Germany, and the Justice Department has been unable to extradite them.