Sunday, April 22, 2012

Vast Mexico Bribery Case Hushed Up by Wal-Mart After Top-Level Struggle by David Barstow

Two more days, and it would have been a year since I last posted. The story that brought me back and inspired me to add to this pretty much now-defunct blog? A Wal-Mart corruption scandal in Mexico that implicates high-level executives that have been promoted since a corporate investigation.

David Barstow of The New York Times details the incredible cover-up at Wal-Mart de Mexico, Wal-Mart's largest foreign subsidiary, of bribery amounts to obtain building permits throughout the country totaling $24 million—and this investigation, conducted in late 2005 by the company's investigation branch, only went back to 2003. If this wasn't bad enough, Barstow goes a step further to highlight how then-Wal-Mart executives who have since then been promoted to higher positions attempted at every step of the company's investigation to impede its process, cloud the truth and push off the blame.

With Barstow holding the sole byline, and only two contributors listed, the amount of damning information unearthed by the trio's investigative reporting is truly astounding. Each paragraph reads like an accusation—and at times, it seemed almost farcical how intelligent human beings can go about making self-serving decisions, and then have it cemented in email records.

At the center of the scandal is a former executive, Sergio Cicero Zapata, who actually oversaw most of the transactions between the company and "gestores," fixers enlisted to help Wal-Mart expand quickly and extensively by obtaining building permits, among other things. After resigning in 2004, Cicero blew the whistle by approaching Maritza Munich, the then-general counsel of Wal-Mart International who has since left the company, to detail the company's practices.

It's a long read, but definitely worth it, because by the end of it, the main targets of the investigation—Eduardo Castro-Wright and later, Jose Luis Rodriguezmacedo Rivera—gets a hold of the corporate inquiry, and Cicero is blamed as the main mastermind for the bribes.
But, they said, the more investigators corroborated his assertions, the more resistance they encountered inside Wal-Mart. Some of it came from powerful executives implicated in the corruption, records and interviews show. Other top executives voiced concern about the possible legal and reputational harm. 
In the end, people involved in the investigation said, Wal-Mart’s leaders found a bloodlessly bureaucratic way to bury the matter. But in handing the investigation off to one of its main targets, they disregarded the advice of one of Wal-Mart’s top lawyers, the same lawyer first contacted by Mr. Cicero. 
“The wisdom of assigning any investigative role to management of the business unit being investigated escapes me,” Maritza I. Munich, then general counsel of Wal-Mart International, wrote in an e-mail to top Wal-Mart executives. 
The investigation, she urged, should be completed using “professional, independent investigative resources.”        
Doubly entertaining to me is how much of it could probably apply to Cambodia and how the culture of arrogance that permeates major businesses can hinder their ability to make decisions that will likely benefit in the long run.

Line after line of Barstow's reporting reveals how Wal-Mart higher-ups were offered a clear shot to exonerate the company's reputation by taking the steps necessary to weed out corruption—which was then promptly bypassed in order to just perform damage control. 
In short, Willkie Farr [a law firm with extensive experience in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases] recommended the kind of independent, spare-no-expense investigation major corporations routinely undertake when confronted with allegations of serious wrongdoing by top executives.
Wal-Mart’s leaders rejected this approach. Instead, records show, they decided Wal-Mart’s lawyers would supervise a far more limited “preliminary inquiry” by in-house investigators.        
I don't know enough about Cambodia's business community to know about what form corruption takes but I do know something of Cambodia's general climate (in a non-weather sense) that tends to encourage "facilitation fees," as they are known here. I don't want to say anything too obvious or incriminating (though I suppose I already have, in so many words) but what I think Barstow's piece could benefit from, perhaps as a Part Two look, is the government agencies that Wal-Mart had to go through in order to get these permits. Where did the $24 million go? To the gestores, sure, but in the end, who were the officials or the agencies palming the money?

This isn't something that is the easiest thing to track, and in and of itself, Barstow's piece is already incredible and ridiculously chock-full of corporate corruption. But this corruption was necessary in order to facilitate the growth of Wal-Mart in Mexico, and it was only possibly because of how that country operates. 

I'm not taking away fault (hell, no)—I'm saying, please widen the investigation in whatever way possible to show how the Mexican government is actually condoning and encouraging something like this to happen. 

One last quote from the piece:
Another person familiar with the thinking of those overseeing the investigation said Wal-Mart would have reacted “like a chicken on a June bug” had the allegations concerned the United States. But some executives saw Mexico as a country where bribery was embedded in the business culture. It simply did not merit the same response.
“It’s a Mexican issue; it’s better to let it be a Mexican response,” the person said, describing the thinking of Wal-Mart executives.
In the midst of this debate, Ms. Munich submitted her resignation, effective Feb. 1, 2006. In one of her final acts, she drafted a memo that argued for expanding the Mexico investigation and giving equal respect to Mexican and United States laws.
“The bribery of government officials,” she noted dryly, “is a criminal offense in Mexico.”          
Seriously, just replace "Mexico" with... well, you know.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

'Restrepo' Director Tim Hetherington Killed in Libya

Seems like the only time I post here nowadays is just when I have bad news. I've held this back for a number of days, hoping that it isn't true, but it is, so here: Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya on Wednesday, along with Chris Hondros of Getty Images, when they were photographing in the beseiged city of Misurata, Libya.

Though I have yet to watch Restrepo - the documentary that he co-directed with Sebastian Junger chronicling a platoon's time in the the Korengal Valley, one of the deadliest cities in Afghanistan - I have read Sebastian Junger's book, War (and reviewed it in my personal blog). Tim is mentioned throughout and it is really difficult to connect this person in the book with the reality of him being dead. I can't imagine what it must be like for his family and friends, but as an admirer of his work, I feel so saddened by this.

There have been an outpoouring of sympathy and memories from the war journalism community, and I am at least glad for the attention that a combat zone is getting, even if it's because of the reporters. After all, it's what these men and women who work in these dangerous situations want.

From Tim's friend and co-director, Sebastian Junger:
You had a very specific vision for your work and for your life, and that vision included your death. It didn’t have to, but that’s how it turned out. I’m so sorry, Tim. The conversation we could have had about this crazy stunt of yours! Christ, I would have yelled at you, but you know that. Getting mad was how we kept each other safe, how we kept the other from doing something stupid.

From Greg Campbell, Chris' best friend who'd saw him the week before:
We talked about this special breed of journalism he was drawn to and how important it was to bear witness to atrocities that take place far most of the world's eyes. He believed entirely in the power of photojournalism to change the world, to enlighten hearts and minds, and to bring justice and possibly comfort to those who are suffering the most. His deepest commitment, from the very beginning, was to honor those he photographed and bear witness to their struggles.

Finally, CJ Chivers of The New York Times attended the memorial service in Benghazi, Libya,and the Times posted his account of the service. During the ceremony, Marc Burleigh of AFP read from Gustave Mahler, 9th Symphony, 4th Movement:
Often I think they’ve gone outside!
Soon they will get back home again!
The day is lovely! Don’t be anxious,
They’re only taking a long walk,
They’ve only gone out before us,
And will not long to come home again.
We’ll catch up with them on yonder heights
In the sunshine!
The day is fine on yonder heights!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Four NYT Journalists Missing in Libya (Update!)

NYT's Media Decoder reported this afternoon that four NYT journalists are missing in Libya: Anthony Shadid and Stephen Farrell, both prominent war reporters; and Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario, photojournalists who regularly produce amazing images of war-torn countries.

This news is doubly frightening considering the recent treatment of 3 BBC reporters in the hands of the Libyan military. For 21 hours, they were beaten and subjected to fake executions, but were eventually released. Also, this happened in Egypt a month ago.

When I first read about the NYT reporters, it felt like my heart had dropped to my stomach. I'm especially familiar with Hicks and Addario's photos since I have great admiration for war photographers. They put themselves in the direct paths of tense and life-threatening situations in order to capture a shot that properly showcases a war. Whenever I see their photos, I always wonder what's happening around them – what is not seen in the images captured?

Two weeks ago, Hicks' account of his experience photographing in Libya appeared on the Lens blog. About war photography, he had said:

Conflict is very difficult to capture in a still photograph. Once you take away the sound and the motion, when you’re trying to capture that feeling and that atmosphere, it’s very difficult to translate — what it feels like to be there, the confusion and gunfire and bombs and all these things that envelop you in battle. To take a single photograph of that is a challenge.

It can be so easy to romanticize lives of war reporters and photographers – God knows I'm guilty of that with all the books I've read from war reporters. But then something like this happens and all I can feel is incredible dread. It reminds me that though their work must be exhilarating and fulfilling, that rush can sometimes come at the expense of their safety. They remain in my thoughts.

Update 3/18/11:
Christiane Amanpour interview Qaddafi's son and he said that the four journalists are under government custody and will be released later today!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

David S. Broder, Pulitzer-winning Columnist, Dies at 81

"As good a journalist as David Broder is, he's a better human being," Lou Cannon, a former Post colleague, once said.

From The LA Times

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Remaking of the President by John Heilemann

In the most recent cover story of New York Magazine, John Heilemann sets out with an ambitious agenda. With a title as grandiose as "The Remaking of the President," Heileman must deliver an article that explains three things:

1) What Barack Obama previously stood for
2) The reasons why our president needs to be "remade" and
3) What the Obama administration will do in order to succeed, and how it will differ from the last two years

This story had the potential to become a messy, convoluted clusterfuck – and really, it's been written so much in the last month since Congress' lame-duck session concluded – but Heilemann skillfully covers these three points and has even managed to make it readable. Of course, the article will be devoured by anyone interested in the intricacies of politics, but he manages to also bring a very human aspect to the thought process behind all the dreary political strategizing. His goal, as a writer, is not just to explain to politico freaks where the Obama administration went wrong with the president's image; what Heilemann set out to do, and succeeded, is to get the average person excited once again about having a president that they elected into the White House.

I very much consider myself an average purveyor of politics – I don't have the stamina to follow it as closely as I'd like to, nor do I really have the rabid interest. In general, I try my best to keep my attention away from the 24-hour news coverage. Heileman seems to be aware of the general disinterest the public holds for our politicians. Sure, we read the big stories, but we don't really care to consume the minute, day-to-day details of the Obama administration or the obstacles they face. He knows this, and so weaved throughout all the political jargon of his story is a more personal narrative of our president.

By painting a picture of a president who is willing to explore new ways to connect with American citizens, Heilemann's very political article is actually a personal story in disguise. At the root of it, he has shown us that Obama is willing to change in order to become a better leader. This can sound somewhat self-serving, since the man has to face a re-election in 2012, but think about it in this way: Can you imagine our previous president ever changing despite the all-time low numbers that he received during his presidency? The famous "Decider" actually putting on his thinking cap to rationally consider consequences before moving forward? For anyone who said, "Well, maybe..." I need only to refer you to Matt Lauer's interview with Bush when he was making the rounds for his book tour. Even with no political gain in sight, Bush was still tap-tap-tap-dancing for pride's sake. Honestly, it was like watching an old friend constantly fucking up, and knowing that he fucked up, but never saying, "I'm sorry," or "Maybe I shouldn't have done that." We may know him well and accept him for who he is (hell, we had to for eight years) but that doesn't make it any less frustrating to watch.

As I said earlier, what really cemented Heilemann's article was the amount of very humanizing interviews about Obama from unnamed and named sources. Here's one I particularly liked:

Obama knew that the hardest change for him to make would be shattering his self-circumspection, but resolved to push himself to do so. "he's got an enormous capacity to do what he has to do when he recognizes he has to do it," the Democratic bigwig says. "During the campaign, he did a lot of things he didn't like to do, and he actually got pretty good at it. A lot of it was just the bullshit – the receptions, the glad-handling, all the stuff you have to do to be political. You have to be extrovert plus, and he will never be extroverted, much less plus. But he'll get better at this, because he knows he has to, and he will work at it."

You know the saying that a tiger will never change its stripes? Well, it must be a shitload harder for a president to do so because at least a tiger doesn't have all the major news networks watching its every move and putting an ulterior motive to its actions.

Obama's personal changes are also reflected in the changes within his administration, and Heilemann is able to clearly map out all the old players that are leaving (though who will still be present in some form in the re-election campaign) and the new players coming in. My favorite example that Heilemann latches on to show (not tell!) Obama's desire to make changes, despite it being outside of his comfort zone, is his appointment of Bill Daley as the new chief of staff, replacing Rahm Emanuel (who can now run for mayor in Chicago because that ridiculous residency kerfuffle is done and over with – thank you, Chicago Tribune, for publishing this very sensible Op-Ed. You're still one of my favorite newspapers.) He could have gone for Pete Rouse, an old Obama hand who stepped in during the transition period of Emanuel leaving his position, and whom Obama would have probably preferred in the role, if it were not for his administration's need for an outside perspective.

By a long shot, the easier and safer path would have been to stick with Rouse, a beloved figure in the White House whose permanent elevation would have been greeted by a standing ovation in the West Wing. But Obama had come to believe that, for all of Rouse's many and evident virtues, he needed new blood and new thinking, even if – especially if – it pushed him outside of his narrow comfort zone.

Does anyone remember how during the last leg of the campaign, everyone was freaking out because McCain had just announced his VP candidate (McCain, I will never – never – forgive you for bringing that woman into public consciousness. You are the reason a moose is dead.) and suddenly the game has completely changed? Remember this photo?



Obama's got it. He's a smart, capable man who, as Heilemann has so eloquently shown, is willing to admit his administration's shortcomings and make changes to it to get our country on the right track. Amidst the clusterfuck of hateful political rhetoric, the hypocritical Tea Partiers and the newly elected right's braggadocio, he still manages to come out with dignity.

(Photo: Pete Souza/The White House)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Obama Steps Up



"The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and coworkers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy -- it did not -- but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud."

(The full transcript can be found here.)

Here are some reactions:
Obama's Tucson Speech: Inspiration, but the Tone Surprised Some (CNN)
Fox News was Pretty Gaga Over Obama's Speech Last Night (Business Insider)
Obama Brings It Home (Gail Collins of NYT)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Words of Wisdom Today from Mike Allen's Playbook

We live our lives by a simple rule that we teach our kids: If you wonder whether it's OK, it's not.

A little simplistic, but when referring to tenuous line between advertising and newsrooms autonomy, it certainly applies. Allen is referring to The Washington Post's ombudsman Andrew Alexander's piece about Amazon links being inserted into a Post review online. The click provided from an interested reader delivers a pay cut to The Post, which is slightly troubling in itself, but my (the newsroom's) sense of unease is amplified by the fact that the links will be in the article itself and not in some clearly-marked Amazon-hosted side bar or at the end of the article.

I don't know if there is a marked ethical difference on the placement of the links (though my instinctive response of, "...What??" tells me that I certainly believe so) but I am also seeing it from a reader's point of view. The idea of having links in my newspaper article drive me from the article to Amazon.com is just a little too jarring for me. If I were to click on "Transformer's toys" thinking it would lead me to somewhere else on Washpo/other news outlets (maybe a business story about how toys do as failing franchises grow? I don't know - just an example) it would be really disconcerting when I find myself at a website that is directly aimed at my money-spending sensibilities.

Now reader-convenience aside, as a wannabe journalist , the idea of having links to a consumer website within an article just makes me skin crawl. I know it's probably not a big deal (even Alexander says that no reader has complained to him about it) but even with all the safeguards put up by the Post, I feel like if I were a writer crafting a story, I might hesitate to use a product name unless if it's absolutely necessary.

I just don't understand why Amazon can't have a little scrollable sidebar where they automatically generate the products mentioned in the article - so it looks like it were an Amazon code generating it, instead of the Post hyperlinking it. Like I said, I'm not sure if it's a big difference, but it certainly makes me feel less uncomfortable when I look at an article littered with consumer links.

Perhaps the best thing for them to do is as Allen says Politico does: They include products in Playbook for a reader's convenience, but they get nothing from it.

After all, if the executive editor Marcus W. Baruchli says that their primary concern is "simplifying a user's experience," then I know it would be far simpler for me to not have to mull over the ethical concerns of their business practices within the newsroom.

PS. I just looked briefly through some articles and I realized that there are rarely any products mentioned in Politics, World and Domestic News and D.C. news, which is certainly expected.