Mexico's president is in hot water over property dealings -- and the backlash is fierce

Last week, The Guardian reported that Angelica Rivera, the wife of Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto, had used an apartment in Florida owned by a Mexican businessman who also paid the property-tax bill on her own adjacent apartment

The backlash for the controversy, which isn’t the first conflict-of-interest scandal involving the current Mexican president, has already reached a high pitch.

Members of two of Mexico’s major political parties, the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), have called for an investigation into the first lady’s apartment, a unit in Ocean Tower One, in an upscale gated community in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Rivera purchased her apartment in 2005, and it is located a floor below the apartment purchased several years later by Ricardo Pierdant, who knows the president and owns Grupo Pierdant, a Mexican firm that is a potential bidder on contracts to manage the country’s ports.

Legislators from the PAN have requested that federal auditors and the country’s comptroller’s office look into whether businesses owned by Pierdant have worked with the federal government in the past.

The Mexican public has also joined in. A petition on with more than 86,000 signatures — titled “The Other White House,” in reference to a previous property controversy involving the first family — calls for the Anticorruption Prosecutor’s office to investigate Rivera.

Ocean Tower One Miami FloridaGoogle MapsOcean Club Tower One, center, in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Other observers have noted that the scandal again calls attention to the poor way Mexican politicians handle conflicts of interest.

“It reignites the discussion over the links that the President and his wife have with businessmen, particularly the type of relation that they could have with someone who pays your property taxes,” Eduardo Bohorquez, who leads the Mexico office of Transparency International, told The Wall Street Journal last week.

“The wife of the president of Mexico cannot receive special favours that involve hundreds of thousands of pesos … without first receiving authorization” from the presidential legal counsel, Salvador Camarena, a columnist, wrote in El Financiero on Saturday.

“The president of the republic cannot accept favours that his friends lavish on him, his wife, their children, their siblings or their collaborators that involve thousands of dollars,” Camarena added.

The president’s office and the contractor involved have both made efforts to explain away the appearance of impropriety, but it is unlikely that their justifications will sway a public that is used to malfeasance among the political class.

Pierdant himself has said Rivera asked him to make the property-tax payment on her property and that she reimbursed him for the expense. This explanation, however, came after Pierdant told Univision that it was “totally false” that he had paid property taxes for the apartment that she owned.

Spokesmen for Peña Nieto said Rivera had only rarely used Pierdant’s apartment and that there was no conflict of interest because Pierdant was not currently bidding on government contracts and denied that the two apartments were connected and shared a telephone number.

They also said the president hadn’t used the businessman’s property since he was elected in 2012 — but couldn’t say whether he had used it prior to that.

In an interview this week with Mexican journalist Joaquín López Dóriga, the president tried to downplay the controversy. He said that his wife did not have another property in Miami and acknowledged that Pierdant, who Peña Nieto did not mention by name, lived in the building but did not have any contracts with the Mexican government.

As to the property-tax payment, Peña Nieto denied any sinister goings-on.

“He is a friend who is there and who effectively did her a favour. The only occasion in 11 years that she has the property, in the only occasion because my wife was here and she asked him, ‘Hey, can you cover the property tax? I will cover it for you here,'” meaning she would pay him back, Peña Nieto said.

“As in fact it occurred,” the president added.

The controversy over the Miami properties is only the latest such scandal.

Previous reports have found that Peña Nieto seemed to misrepresent how he had acquired property outside of Mexico City on tax forms, and, in another instance, that Rivera, his wife, was attempting to buy a home in an upscale Mexico City neighbourhood from a contractor with close ties to Peña Nieto — the so-called Casa Blanca scandal.

In a Reforma poll done prior to The Guardian’s report, Peña Nieto’s approval rating had slipped to 23%, the lowest since the newspaper started doing the survey in 1995.

That poll also found 55% of respondents believed corruption at the federal level had gotten worse — up from 40% in April.

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