FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The two top executives of Wal-Mart Stores gave shareholders their unequivocal commitment to get to the bottom of alleged bribery charges in Mexico that have surfaced against the company.
“If any violations occurred, then appropriate actions will be taken. That is my personal commitment to each of you,” S. Robson Walton Jr., chairman, said during the company’s annual shareholder meeting here. “We will do the right thing the right way. You have my word on that.”
The New York Times reported in April that WalMex, the company’s Mexico-based subsidiary, had paid $24 million in bribes to local officials to sidestep regulations and obtain construction permits — actions that were known to various Wal-Mart executives.
At the meeting, Walton said Wal-Mart is cooperating with investigations by the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission. In addition, he said the company’s own investigation, launched seven months ago, is being conducted by the audit committee of its independent directors working with outside counsel.
Mike Duke, president and chief executive officer, addressed the company’s employees, saying, “If you work for Wal-Mart, there is no gray area between right and wrong. It’s either the right thing to do, or we shouldn’t do it at all.”
The allegations led large numbers of shareholders to vote against several directors. The vote against Walton was 12.63%; against Duke, 13.07%; against Christopher J. Williams, chairman of the chain’s audit committee, 13.26%; and against H. Lee Scott Jr., who was president and CEO at the time of the alleged bribery, 15.65%.
The bribery allegations were mentioned by a shareholder during her presentation of a proposal calling for greater transparency in executive compensation programs — a proposal that was ultimately voted down.
Jackie Goebel, who identified herself as a 24-year employee, said Wal-Mart was opening too many stores in the U.S. and acquiring too many stores overseas, “which makes us less profitable and puts more pressure on store managers to cut costs. Ask any associate, and they’ll tell you cutting costs means understaffing at the stores, which results in associates who can’t provide the type of customer service Sam Walton built this company on.”