Eight months ago, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto tapped an old party hand and confessed "friend" of his finance minister to investigate conflict of interest allegations against his administration. The president, First Lady Angelica Rivera, and Finance Minster Luis Videgaray had all purchased properties from prominent government contractors — sparking scandals that sunk Peña Nieto's popularity and opened Rivera, previously a soap opera star, to unprecedented scrutiny.
On Friday, federal comptroller Virgilio Andrade announced the findings of his investigations and — to no one's surprise south of the border — cleared all concerned parties of any wrongdoing. After being exonerated, Peña Nieto apologized for the "outrage" the scandal caused, but said his actions were always above board. Videgaray also apologized.
"The investigation showed that the conduct of my wife and I was completely in accordance with the law," Peña Nieto said at a meeting of Mexico governors. "I am aware and recognize that these events gave place to interpretations that shocked and outraged many Mexicans. I offer all of them a sincere apology."
The results of the investigation, announced in a three-hour press conference, caused incredulity in a country already consumed with cynicism, corruption cases, impunity, and public officials flouting the law.
In his report, Andrade said that Rivera and Videgaray were not public functionaries in 2012 — though Videgaray was part of the president's transition team — when they bought homes from a contractor, Grupo Higa. Grupo Higa's founder Juan Armando Hinojosa wasn't interviewed, Andrade said, though he enjoys a long friendship with Peña Nieto.
Peña Nieto, Andrade added, wasn't a federal functionary in 2005, when he bought a golf course home from a contractor (not Grupo Higa) in a resort town in the state of Mexico, which surrounds Mexico City like a horseshoe, and where the president was governor from 2005 to 2011.
No explanation was given for why the federal government cancelled a high-speed rail contract, in which Grupo Higa was part of the winning bid, on the eve of an exposé on Rivera's home.
Investigative reporters with news outlet Aristegui Noticias produced documents showing the First Lady bought a $7 million mansion known as the Casa Blanca — the White House — from Grupo Higa. (The reporters, employees of MVS Radio, were subsequently fired.)
Mexicans took to Twitter to express their indignation over the results, and Peña Nieto's decision to have Andrade lead the investigation. Andrade sits in the cabinet and has known the finance minister since they were students in the late1980s.
"Summing up Virgilio Andrade's report: 'Not my boss nor my friend is corrupt, nor did they incur conflicts of interest. Really, really," tweeted Gerardo Esquivel, economics professor at the Colegio de México.
ElDeforma, Mexico's version of The Onion, saw no need for spoofs and simply stated the facts on its Twitter feed. A later story said, "All of Mexico apologizes" for judging the president and his wife as corrupt "without knowing that it wasn't true."
Andrade insisted the investigation was independent and stuck to the letter of the law. The comptroller's office is responsible for investigating any improper relationships between federal public officials and government contractors.
Peña Nieto, he said, did not intervene in any bidding processes. Neither did any of the 111 bureaucrats interviewed about possibly pushing contracts to the companies building the homes.
In announcing the investigation back in February, Peña Nieto said a panel of "transparency experts" would evaluate the results. That didn't happen, and Andrade said citizens could read the report — all 60,000 pages — for themselves. A press conference was announced at the last minute via midnight phone calls to reporters' homes, and it turned testy as Andrade spoke in circles around questions about why the expert panel wasn't employed, whether he had read the 111 bureaucrats' emails, or if he was "proud" of his investigation.
Analysts say Mexican officials often fail to avoid the appearances of impropriety since the political class is accustomed to playing by its own rules. Cases of corruption almost always go unpunished. The concept of conflicts of interest can also be afterthought in Mexico, especially in political and business cultures rife with cronyism and nepotism.
"Our elites, political, religious, business, intellectual, simply refuse to understand the concept of conflicts of interest," Rodolfo Soriano, a Mexico City sociologist, said via Twitter.
"Impunity is high in Mexico and it's the highest in the political class," said Manuel Molano, adjunct-director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness think tank. "They're a noble cast unto themselves, like medieval royalty."
Rivera, speaking in a poorly produced video, said she did nothing wrong and was making monthly payments on the Casa Blanca property with her earnings as an actress — more than $10 million in 2011 for appearing in Mexican soap operas, according to Andrade — but would return it anyway.
The investigation comes at a critical time for Peña Nieto, whose approval rating plummeted to 34 percent — historically low by Mexican standards — as he confronts crises such as cartel kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán tunneling out of prison, and an economy hit hard as the peso reaches record lows.
But cracking down on a possible conflict of interest and possibly regaining public trust — the latter being a stated goal — is out of the question, analysts say.
"In [his party's] mythology, the president is untouchable," Soriano said. "It would mean going against himself and against the myth."
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