During her brief but lucrative stint as president of Wal-Mart’s charitable foundation in 2012, Sylvia Matthews Burwell received at least $750,000 in bonuses from an organization that doles out hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions but keeps a tight lid on its own compensation practices, records show.
Ms. Burwell spent a little more than a year running Wal-Mart’s foundation before President Obama tapped her to be his budget chief last year — and then last week asked her to take over as health and human services secretary.
Her White House biography touts her key private-sector experience as president of the massive foundation, but Internal Revenue Service records show that the job is unpaid and the more than $1.2 million in salary, deferred compensation and bonuses paid to Ms. Burwell came through her lesser-known role as a vice president at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., according to a government ethics filing.
James Joseph, a tax lawyer at Arnold & Porter LLP, said such arrangements are common among corporate foundations.
“Employees of a corporate foundation will usually work for the corporation and be paid by the corporation and then their services are donated by the corporation to the foundation,” he said in an email.
Still, Ms. Burwell’s decision to join the administration — where she is required to file detailed public financial forms — provides a rare glimpse into how one of the country’s biggest corporate foundations pays its executives.
Ms. Burwell received a $500,000 signing bonus and $407,000 in salary during 2012 and the first two months of last year, according to the disclosure forms.
She also stood to be paid $250,000 to $500,000 as a “cash incentive” as well as $100,000 to $250,000 in deferred compensation.
That doesn’t include restricted stock and performance shares worth $700,000 to $1.2 million, forms show. Details of the signing bonus were first reported by the Federal Times.
Though there is nothing illegal about the practice, listing her foundation job as receiving no compensation suggests the company donates her services. Indeed, on IRS forms, the Wal-Mart foundation lists “zero” in response to a required disclosure on compensation of officers and directors.
“It may be living up to the letter of the law but it’s not very transparent or meeting the spirit of the law,” said Pete Smith, a consultant for nonprofits on executive compensation issues.
“Wal-Mart has been a very big factor in the charitable community and around the world giving lots of money to things they care about, and that’s good,” he said. “But there may be a sense that this is still a family-held business and what we do is not part of your business, so that could be part of it.”
Ms. Burwell lists all of her income from Wal-Mart on government financial disclosure forms coming from the corporation, not the charitable foundation.
“Upon confirmation, I will resign from my positions as President of the Walmart Foundation and Vice President of Walmart Stores, Inc,” she wrote in an ethics agreement before her Office of Management and Budget confirmation last year.
Wal-Mart did not respond to messages seeking comment Monday, and OMB declined to comment.
In a statement last week, Wal-Mart President and CEO Doug McMillon congratulated Ms. Burwell on the HHS nomination, saying “it’s crucial to have a leader like Sylvia in this role.”
Mr. Obama noted Ms. Burwell’s time at the foundation when he announced her nomination for the OMB job a year ago. “She helped the Walmart Foundation expand its charitable work,” he said.
• Jim McElhatton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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