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E-mails suggest Walmart CEO knew of Mexico bribes in ’05

Allegations first surfaced in April that Walmart failed to notify authorities that company officials authorized millions in bribes in Mexico to gain favors.

Edgard Garrido/Reuters/File 2012

Allegations first surfaced in April that Walmart failed to notify authorities that company officials authorized millions in bribes in Mexico to gain favors.

NEW YORK — Walmart Stores Inc.’s chief executive, Mike Duke, found out in 2005 that the retailer’s Mexico unit was handing out bribes to local officials, according to e-mails obtained by lawmakers.

The e-mails contradict earlier claims by Walmart senior executives that they were not aware of bribes being made by the company.

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Democratic congressmen Elijah E. Cummings and Henry A. Waxman, who are investigating bribery charges at Walmart’s Mexico division, on Thursday released e-mails that indicate that Duke and other senior Walmart officials were informed multiple times starting in 2005 about bribes being made in the country. US law forbids American companies from bribing foreign officials.

The lawmakers shared the e-mails, which they said they got from a confidential source, with Walmart on Wednesday, and sent a letter to Duke asking for a meeting to discuss them.

‘‘It would be a serious matter if the CEO of one of our nation’s largest companies failed to address allegations of a bribery scheme,’’ according to the letter written by Waxman and Cummings to Duke.

Allegations first surfaced in April that Walmart failed to notify law enforcement that company officials authorized millions of dollars in bribes in Mexico to speed up getting building permits and gain other favors. Walmart has been working with government officials in the United States and Mexico on that investigation.

The company also has been conducting an internal investigation into the matter. And last November, the retailer said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it was looking into potential US bribery law violations in Brazil, China, and India.

Brooke Buchanan, a Walmart spokeswoman, issued a statement on Thursday saying that the company has been providing information to the Department of Justice and the SEC, including the documents that were released by lawmakers on Thursday.

‘‘We are committed to having a strong and effective global anticorruption program everywhere we operate and taking appropriate action for any instance of noncompliance,’’ Buchanan said.

The bribery allegations were first reported by The New York Times. Last month, the paper published another story focusing on how Walmart’s Mexico division offered payoffs to get things that the law prohibited.

The story focused on how Walmart paid $52,000 to secure approval to build its store in Teotihuacan on the site of ancient ruins. Although local zoning would have prohibited Walmart from building its store, the Times reported that the company allegedly bribed local officials to have that map redrawn.

In the Times article, Walmart spokesman Dave Tovar denied that US executives knew anything about the alleged corruption involving construction of the Teotihuacan store.

Buchanan, the Walmart spokeswoman, said Tovar’s comment in the Times article was focused on events in 2004, and that the letter that Waxman and Cummings wrote to Duke ‘‘leaves the wrong impression that our public statements are contradicted by the information they released today.’’

The e-mails released Thursday include one from November 2005 from Maritza Munich, then general counsel of Walmart International to Duke and other senior Walmart executives. The e-mail informed them of charges related to bribes paid to obtain permits for a store in Mexico.

The lawmakers also made public another e-mail that Walmart general counsel Thomas Mars sent on Oct. 15, 2005 to Duke and Tom Hyde, the executive vice president of Walmart. That e-mail referenced to bribes paid to obtain permits for the Teotihuacan site.

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