(Adds Wal-Mart comment, details)
Nov 24 (Reuters) - A U.S. investigation into potential foreign bribery by Wal-Mart Stores Inc has unearthed evidence of possible misconduct by the company in Brazil, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing documents and people familiar with the matter.
Federal authorities are investigating $500,000 in payments they believe ultimately went to an individual hired to obtain government permits for building two stores in Brasília, Brazil's capital, between 2009 and 2012, the newspaper said, citing an investigative document. (on.wsj.com/1lIf8kK).
The focus on payments in Brazil marks a new development in a years-long investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into potential misconduct by Wal-Mart in some overseas markets. In addition to Brazil, the department has been investigating potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by the retailer in China, India and Mexico.
Wal-Mart spokesman Greg Hitt said in an emailed statement that the company was cooperating with the government on the matter. “For Walmart, compliance with the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and other anti-corruption laws is a key priority,” Hitt said.
The Justice Department declined to comment
Lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service, went to Brazil earlier this month to interview witnesses in coordination with local prosecutors, the Wall Street Journal said.
Prosecutors are also examining whether senior employees at Wal-Mart in Brazil at the time knew of and approved of the suspected payments. The investigation is at an early stage and it is not clear if charges will be brought, the paper said.
The report comes a month after the Wall Street Journal reported that a federal probe into allegations of corruption at Wal-Mart’s Mexico operations found few major offenses and was likely to result in a much smaller case than initially expected. That probe was sparked after the New York Times reported in 2012 that Wal-Mart de Mexico (Walmex) had engaged in a multi-year campaign of bribery to build its business there.
The recent developments also come after Chief Executive Doug McMillon told investors last month that he planned to review the company’s global assets, a comment that sparked speculation he may look to pull out of one or more of the 27 countries in which it operates outside the United States. The retailer’s international operations have struggled recently, in part due to a stronger dollar, as well as tough economic conditions in some markets like Brazil, where inflation and high unemployment have hurt sales.
Federal prosecutors have evidence of Wal-Mart employees discussing the hiring of a person believed to have previously held a government position in order to obtain the permits, the Wall Street Journal said, citing a written request for assistance sent by Justice Department officials to their counterparts in Brazil. Prosecutors also have evidence Wal-Mart made the payments indirectly through contractors, although it is not clear they have proof it was a bribe, the newspaper said. (Reporting by Nathan Layne in Chicago and Ramkumar Iyer in Bengaluru; Editing by Anil D‘Silva and Andrew Hay)