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Obama, Using Wal-Mart, Has a Chance to Redeem Himself

Tickers in this article: WMT
NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- When I examined the 10th anniversary of the Enron scandal last week, I didn't expect it to be the first installment of a two-part series. But then came Wal-Mart and its headline-grabbing Mexican bribery scandal.

Is the Bentonville behemoth the new Enron? Will it be (if you'll pardon the Mexican metaphor) the most-thwacked piñata of the era? A poster child for corporate corruption? A whipping boy for society's revulsion with men in suits carrying out criminal acts?

These aren't rhetorical, pie-in-the-sky questions, in the wake of the brilliant New York Times exposé of Wal-Mart's alleged bribery of Mexican officials. The Enronization of Wal-Mart is a realistic possibility -- if, that is, the Obama administration has the will to make it happen.

The threshold question is simple: Will Attorney General Eric Holder go after Wal-Mart with the only tool that matters in situations like this -- a criminal prosecution? Bloomberg reported on Tuesday that a criminal probe is in the works, and let's hope that this report is true.

President Obama let Wall Street get off scot-free in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, with no criminal prosecutions even at Lehman Brothers, despite the damning findings of the bankruptcy trustee (as CBS News' "60 Minutes" just pointed out on Sunday ).

Having dropped the ball on Lehman and the Street's other miscreants, and BP as well in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico fiasco, Obama's Justice Department is getting another bite of the apple. It can make an example of Wal-Mart as part of a newly invigorated get-tough policy on corporate crime.

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What distinguished Enron from past (and future) corporate scandals was that its top execs went to prison. That has actually happened to violators of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, though not recently (here's one example dating back to 2001 ) -- only once in a blue moon and never to execs of a well-known company like Wal-Mart. But it could happen this time if the egregious acts set forth in the Times article are proven.

If so, it would be an important signal to Corporate America, if Obama is willing to make it, that despite his quest for campaign contributions and frustrating hesitancy to go to the mat with misbehaving corporations, Obama still has the soul of the agent of change we elected four years ago. He ought to grasp at the opportunity.

Enron and the Wal-Mart Mexican bribery scandal don't have very much in common, but they share the same stench of moral turpitude at the highest levels of the executive suite. No amount of spin-doctoring and crisis management is going to make this one go away. If Wal-Mart thinks that it can make its south-of-the-border horror show evaporate with an SEC disclosure and a press release , it's got another thing coming.