WASHINGTON -- Two Democratic congressmen are investigating whether the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's tenacious attack on a key anti-bribery statute has less to do with high-minded economic principles and more to do with the fact that nearly one in four board members of the Chamber's "legal reform" arm represents a company that has been caught up in a bribery investigation itself.
Top Walmart executives sit on the board of the Chamber's well-funded Institute for Legal Reform -- a connection that became considerably more newsworthy after The New York Times reported last month that a vast bribery inquiry involving Walmart's Mexico subsidiary had been hushed up by top executives in the company's Arkansas headquarters.
The Institute for Legal Reform has been leading a powerful and unprecedented lobbying campaign to persuade Congress to rewrite key provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a 35-year-old statute that criminalizes bribes to foreign officials, on the grounds that prosecutors have been enforcing it too aggressively.
In a letter to the Chamber released Tuesday, Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) -- the ranking Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee, respectively -- describe how committee staff looked through the institute's tax filings and found that 14 of the group's 55 board members between 2007 and 2010 "were affiliated with companies that were reportedly under investigation for violations or had settled allegations that they violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act."
That 14-out-of-55 figure may even be an understatement, the lawmakers write, as privately held companies aren't required to report potential violations or investigations. For instance, Koch Industries has had a representative on the institute's board since 2007, the congressmen note, and has reportedly engaged in bribery abroad.
The Huffington Post calculated last year that a mere eight members of the Chamber -- not all board members of its legal reform arm -- had altogether paid nearly $1 billion resolving FCPA charges in the last seven years.
In their letter, the congressmen request information from the Institute for Legal Reform, including any documentation of board discussions about FCPA and "documents relating to companies that have provided funds to the Chamber or the ILR for work related specifically to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act."
The letter contains no direct accusations. The lawmakers simply write that they are "concerned about these apparent conflicts of interest."
They note that the nonprofit institute recommended steps that would undermine FCPA while "nowhere did ILR disclose that over a dozen of the corporations represented on its board have violated or have been under investigation for violating" it.
The congressmen also sent a letter to the Retail Industry Leaders Association, asking that group to clarify what role Walmart executives on its board had with regard to its position on FCPA.
Firedoglake blogger John Chandley (known as Scarecrow) noted last month that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce once saw its role as upholding the highest principles of business conduct, declaring that those who indulge in commercial and political corruption should "be purged from the ranks of American business."
Bryan Quigley, a spokesman for the Institute for Legal Reform, declined to comment on the letter. He previously has told reporters that the group's efforts to change FCPA "have been longstanding and are on behalf of the entire business community."
Asked for a response to the congressional letter, Walmart spokesperson Brooke Buchanan wrote in an email, "Walmart has never lobbied on FCPA."
See the graphic below, from an earlier HuffPost story about the Chamber and FCPA:
Graphic by Chris Spurlock
This story has been updated to provide Walmart's response to the congressmen's letter.