The US Justice Department is pursuing a criminal investigation of allegations that the Mercedes unit of DaimlerChrysler paid bribes in at least a dozen countries and that senior executives were in the know about it, The Wall Street Journal reported Friday. "The investigation is an escalation of a civil inquiry by the Securities and Exchange Commission that was disclosed late last year," the report said. That probe was triggered by a former Chrysler accountant in Detroit who alleged in a lawsuit last year that the firm had secret bank accounts for funds used to bribe foreign officials, the report said. DaimlerChrysler operations in Latin America and Africa are among those being reviewed, the paper quoted an unnamed official close to the case as saying. Though "the nature and purpose of the alleged payments hasn't been disclosed," it added.