Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Today's Headlines: Cleaning house

President Peña Nieto delivered a televised address to the nation early yesterday afternoon on the trending topic of the times— official corruption. He offered specific ethics measures, including fuller disclosure by public officials of potential conflicts of interest and a resuscitation of the Public Function Secretariat, the cabinet-level watchdog that's been moribund since 2012.
    But the stunner was the president’s instructions that the first targets of investigation be his wife, his finance secretary and himself. That’s what got the headlines, as Peña Nieto surely anticipated. Four dailies lead this morning with that gambit, La Jornada gives it the No. 2 spot, and all five use variations on Excelsior’s headline: “Investigate the houses, Peña asks.” El Universal's lead head, seen here on the right, reads: "Peña Nieto asks to be investigated for house purchases."
    The three houses in question were built and/or financed by government contractors for Peña Nieto (in the State of Mexico spa town of Ixtapan de la Sal), his wife Angélica Rivera (in the upscale Mexico City neighborhood of Lomas de Chapultepec) and Finance Secretary Luis Videgaray (in the pyramid town turned low-key vacation destination Malinalco, also in the president's native State of Mexico).
    All three insist there was nothing illegal or unethical about the transactions, and the president repeated that assertion in his speech. But in controversies like these, it’s perception that counts, which is why Peña Nieto has been pegged with the image of being not just uninterested in a solution to corruption, but an example of the problem
    The speech Tuesday looks like a calculated move on the president’s part to change that conversation. The suspicion wasn’t going to go away; it would serve as red meat for his adversaries for the rest of his presidency. By submitting himself to an inquiry, he has simultaneously moved the issue off the dime, neutralized the attacks on his character, and presented himself as a leader in the anti-corruption campaign.
    How well it will work, of course, is another story. After all, the Public Function Secretariat is a part of the administration it’s being asked to investigate. Also, legislation to create a nationwide anti-corruption system, designed to replace the SFP with a body with more teeth, has been held up in part because the PRI, the president’s party, insists that the special corruption prosecutor it would create must be accountable to the administration, rather than totally independent. Selflessness, apparently, only goes so far.
    Bottom line, the anti-Peña segment of society won’t back off no matter what he does. If the sky opened up tomorrow morning and Mother Teresa appeared to give the president her blessing, they’d accuse her of complicity. 
CAN I TALK? CAN I TALK?                                                                                                              Peña Nieto’s speech Tuesday was part of a one-two punch by the PRI to take the offensive in the anti-corruption image competition. The other front was in the Chamber of Deputies, where a special committee report was formally presented, recommending investigation of former Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard for his alleged role in the botched multi-billion-peso Line 12 project of the DF Metro.
    The lower house legislators took advantage of the proceedings to criticize the PRD’s Ebrard with language heated even for Congress. The first half of La Jornada’s top head barely hints at the vituperative rhetoric: “There was ‘fraud’ in Line 12.” Most of the money for the project was federal, so it was a foregone conclusion that Congress would go after Ebrard, on whose watch the mess developed. And they didn’t stop until they recommended a criminal investigation.
    The chair of the committee said during the full session Tuesday, “It is inconceivable that irregularities could have been carried out without the knowledge of Marcelo Ebrard.”
    The four parties on the left — Ebrard’s PRD, Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Morena, the Labor Party, and the Citizens Movement — accused the PRI of conducting a “political lynching.” Ebrard, they pointed out, is thought to be the source of the original news story linking Peña Nieto’s wife to the Lomas de Chapultepec house built by a winning bidder for the construction of the now-on-hold Mexico City-Querétaro high-speed rail project. The move against the PRD’s last remaining political heavyweight, they said, is based on revenge and political gamesmanship.  Meanwhile, Ebrard was once again denied permission to defend himself before the deputies. “EPN gets national network TV and I’m not even allowed a minute to refute the calumnies against me,” he tweeted.
    He will be allowed to speak on the floor on Friday, which is a little like being given an acoustic set after The Who finish smashing their instruments. He said he’d appear, but he also filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission.

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