Saturday, May 9, 2015

Today's Mexico City Headlines: Build it and the scandals will come

OHL is a huge Spanish construction company whose Mexican affiliate built the State of Mexico stretch of the famous second deck on the Mexico City metropolitan area’s most important freeway.
    They’re world-class builders, but they seem to have problems with their telephone communications. Somebody recorded a number of conversations by top-level OHL officers and put up the highlights on YouTube last Thursday, after they were made public on Wednesday.
    That’s how corruption scandals are born. You’ll be hearing a lot about this one.
    The most damaging recordings seem to be of OHL Mexico’s board chair, technical director and financial planning director, along with the parent company’s representative in Mexico. They are apparently talking about how they had lowballed their bid for the second-deck project and then overcharged even beyond the inevitable cost overruns, including for work never performed.
    Another appears to reveal that the State of Mexico’s transportation secretary had his family’s December vacation on the Riviera Maya comped by OHL in a hotel the company owns. That alleged misconduct is serious; a government official accepting financial favors from a government contractor is corruption at its most blatant. Such accusations are exactly what’s put President Peña Nieto and his finance secretary in hot water.
    All those “appears” and “seems” and “apparentlys” and “allegeds” in the preceding paragraphs are journalistic fanny-covering practices meant to respect the presumption of innocence, avoid influencing trial outcomes, and stay out of libel or defamation trouble. (I’ve always wondered, though, how calling somebody an “alleged murderer” is any less damaging to his reputation than calling him a “murderer.”)
    These words can have another use — accuracy. Which is especially the case when conclusions are based on something as shaky as clandestine phone recordings.
    That’s what OHL is counting on. The company’s line of defense so far is that the audios are mendacious,  a “montage,” spliced and manipulated in an act of creative vengeance.
    Apolinar Mena, the implicated state transportation secretary, must have missed that  memo. His claim is that conversations about the OHL vacation offer did take place, but he rejected the idea as improper and has the bank statements to prove he paid for the lodging himself.
    Was OHL framed or exposed? Either way, the stakes are big. The company lost 9% of its value on the Mexican stock exchange (BMV) on Thursday before recovering slightly yesterday.
    La Jornada, in its lead front-page article this morning  seems to be leaning toward “exposed” over “framed.” The headline pretty much tells the story: “OHL in litigation in several countries for inflating project costs.”

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