* Enrique Pena Nieto joins calls for probe
* Federal investigation seen unlikely but AG willing to act
* Shares fall 12 percent
By Elinor Comlay and Anahi Rama
MEXICO CITY, April 23 (Reuters) - The front-runner for Mexico’s presidency and lawmakers on Monday called on authorities to investigate allegations of bribery at the Mexican unit of Wal-Mart Stores Inc, though prosecutors said it may not be a federal matter.
Opposition politicians urged Mexico to launch a probe into the accusations, and Enrique Pena Nieto, the favorite to succeed conservative President Felipe Calderon, supported them.
However, Mexico’s attorney general would only look into the claims against Wal-Mart de Mexico (Walmex) if asked to do so by the Ministry of Finance or Ministry of the Economy, a government official said on condition of anonymity.
Officials at the finance and economy ministries could not be reached for comment.
Attorney General Marisela Morales assured Mexicans that her office would act promptly if given the case.
“If it becomes a matter for us, of course we will act, and we will request whatever necessary,” Morales was quoted as saying in a report by newspaper El Universal.
The New York Times reported over the weekend that retailer Wal-Mart had silenced an internal investigation into hundreds of suspect payments worth more than $24 million made to expand its business in Mexico.
Walmex’s shares fell 12 percent on Monday, and the company’s first quarter profit was worse than expected.
A campaign spokesman for Pena Nieto, candidate of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), said he wanted the accusations against Walmex to be investigated.
Pena Nieto’s PRI ally Ildefonso Guajardo, chairman of the economics committee in the lower house of congress, said it was “very important” to get to the bottom of the allegations and put the spotlight on “all levels of government.”
“Because the whole issue of Wal-Mart has to do with levels of government ... including local and federal,” he said.
Asked whether he thought an investigation would ensue Guajardo said, “I think so, yes.”
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, presidential candidate of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), said on Sunday that the allegations showed the government was “rotten,” and he expressed dismay that the case was so far only being investigated outside Mexico.
Two opposition left-wing senators on the Senate’s Banking and Public Credit committee also demanded a probe.
“If licenses were given out where they shouldn’t have been, there’s fraud not only in the cities where that happened, but also there could have been fiscal fraud,” Francisco Javier Castellon of PRD was quoted as saying in Monday’s edition of daily Rumbo de Mexico.
Wal-Mart said on Saturday that it had begun an investigation last fall into its compliance with the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. It said it had disclosed the probe to the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
“Unfortunately, we’re aware that at this time there are questions we do not have answers for. We would like to be able to say more, but we are not prepared to risk the integrity of the investigation,” Walmex said in a statement on Monday.
While political pressure for action may increase in Mexico ahead of the presidential elections on July 1, corruption-weary Mexicans barely raised eyebrows when they read of the bribery allegations in local newspapers.
Bribery and corruption are pervasive in Mexico, where the justice system is weak and lower-level public sector workers earn relatively meager salaries. One study last year by Transparency International showed that Mexican companies were perceived to be the third most likely behind those in China and Russia to pay bribes abroad.
Mexico has been taking steps to turn around this image, and an anti-corruption law was recently passed by the lower house that would give the country new powers to fine companies for corruption.
“It is important for Mexico to show it is tough on corruption,” said lawyer Salvador Mejia, partner at Torres, Martinez y Mejia in Mexico City. “I can definitely see Walmex being investigated further here.”