Someone Remind Walmart That Corporations Are People
It’s fitting, isn’t it, that now, some two years after BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout sullied the Gulf of Mexico for generations to come, new evidence has surfaced that suggests BP not only knew the techniques that failed in the Gulf of Mexico were faulty—because they failed some two years prior in a blowout in the Caspian Sea—but, as EcoWatch’s Greg Palast reports, that oil industry executives, as well as members of the Bush administration, may have been complicit in concealing this information.
It’s fitting, yes, because it was just Earth Day (not that anyone seems to care much about Earth Day anymore, which is a shame—you just don’t see enough people walking the walk on that whole “make every day Earth Day” trope). But it’s especially fitting in light of a parallel story that broke in the New York Times over the weekend about a culture of bribery that reportedly flourished in Walmart’s Mexican subsidiary, Walmart de Mexico, and was allegedly covered up by parent company executives after it was brought to light by a former executive.
How are they similar? Well, one is a big multinational corporation spending big bucks to clean up a mess it made in the Gulf of Mexico while the other is a big multinational corporation accused of spending big bucks to make a mess in Mexico.
The scuttlebutt, according to David Barstow’s exhaustive investigation, is that Walmart de Mexico bigwigs, in order to meet ambitious growth goals, are accused of playing ball in Mexico’s infamously pay-to-play political and economic culture—acts that would be in violation of strict corporate anti-corruption policy, oh, and the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. According to the story, after Walmart lawyers were alerted to the wrongdoing, they launched an internal investigation, finding reason to dig further:
Walmart dispatched investigators to Mexico City, and within days they unearthed evidence of widespread bribery. They found a paper trail of hundreds of suspect payments totaling more than $24 million. They also found documents showing that Walmart de Mexico’s top executives not only knew about the payments, but had taken steps to conceal them from Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. In a confidential report to his superiors, Walmart’s lead investigator, a former F.B.I. special agent, summed up their initial findings this way: “There is reasonable suspicion to believe that Mexican and USA laws have been violated.”
The lead investigator recommended that Walmart expand the investigation.
Instead, an examination by the New York Times found Walmart’s leaders shut it down.
Barstow’s piece is nearly 8,000 words of the sort of public service investigative reporting newspapers still do better than anyone else, and a rightly damning indictment of a company that’s, for better or for worse, become the face of American profit-at-all-human-cost business practices.
Both the EcoWatch and NYT pieces are great pieces of journalism, and you should read them. But my point here isn’t about America (though there’s one to be made, as our greatest export these days seems to be palm grease and blinders); it’s about the dangers of corporatism, particularly multinational outfits like BP and Walmart (and McDonald’s and Apple) that may nominally abide by the laws of nations but ultimately write their own.
To wit: BP may have suffered great legal, monetary and brand damages as a result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but it will survive and ultimately thrive, even if certain Gulf of Mexico ecosystems do not. If Walmart is found guilty of wrongdoing, its stock price will dip and it’ll absorb another PR hit, but its massive Mexican empire—won against competitors who anecdotally tried to play by the rules—will ease that pain. Its alleged culpability in furthering a culture of corruption many in Mexico are fighting to reform would be a more figurative sullying than BP’s, but a sullying all the same.
When we think about the Citizens United case, which granted free speech rights to non-human corporate entities (and specifically when we imagine some dystopian, superPAC-dominated future where the case is not overturned), should we also consider suspending those rights—as we do with humans—for corporations that are found in violation of the law? Are these the kinds of actions we should be rewarding?