Vicente Fox' Luxury Ranch Sparks Corruption Probe

Mexico's former president Vicente Fox is in the U.S. to promote his new book. Back home, he is being sharply criticized. He's the subject of a corruption investigation stemming from a glossy magazine spread of his once-humble ranch now turned luxurious.

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Mexico's former President Vicente Fox is well-known in the U.S., and he has crossed the border this week to promote his new book and his planned presidential library.

Back home in Mexico, he is taking a public relations hit. Fox, who ended seven decades of corrupt one-party rule - has sought the role of an elder statesman since leaving office last year. Instead, he is a subject of a corruption probe. It stems from a glossy magazine spread of his once-humble ranch.

Michael O'Boyle in Mexico City has the story.

(Soundbite of men shouting)

MICHAEL O'BOYLE: A gang of men lasso a bronze statue of a tall, mustached man, his right arm outstretched toward the horizon. They tug and tug until it topples over.

(Soundbite of noise)

O'BOYLE: And the man dances on top of the fallen statue. This isn't Saddam Hussein; it's Mexico's former President Vicente Fox. The incident took place last month in Veracruz, a bastion of the former ruling party, the PRI, that Fox pushed out of office back in 2000.

But it was only one sign of a political backlash that has erupted against Fox here. Fox's legacy had already suffered due to his handling of last year's disputed election. But since leaving office, he was still widely considered an honest politician. That was all changed by a September photo spread.

Political analyst Denise Dresser.

Dr. DENISE DRESSER (Political Science Professor, Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico): But then, he made a mistake out of the sense of unbridled protagonism to give an interview to a high-society magazine called Quien that profiles the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

O'BOYLE: The portraits of Fox and his wife in their San Cristobal ranch were splendid - too splendid, it turns out. The photos showed evidence of widespread renovations that included a swimming pool, landscaped grounds with peacocks, as well as remodeled rooms filled with expensive furniture.

It hadn't been nearly so spiffy when Fox ran for office. The pictures got people talking and sent journalists digging. Soon, there were allegations that parts of the ranch had been remodeled with public funds.

Dr. DRESSER: When those photographs became public currency, a scandal erupted around him and his wife, in what for years had been murmurs and rumors about her illicit maneuvering started to come to the fore.

O'BOYLE: More and more dirty laundry was dug up. The larger scandal centers around allegations of political favors and crony capitalism supposedly orchestrated by Fox's wife, Marta Sahagun, in exchange for gifts like luxury watches or business arrangements for her sons.

In October, opposition lawmakers installed a special commission to investigate the allegations. Victor Valencia de los Santos heads the probe.

Secretary VICTOR VALENCIA DE LOS SANTOS (Urban Development and Ecology, Mexico): (Through translator) We are moved by a genuine call from society to have clear accounts. In recent months, the doubts, the accusations and the public opinion over the management of money in the presidential residence has hurt institutions of our country.

O'BOYLE: Fox has adamantly denied any wrongdoing. He says he was the first politician in Mexico to make his private finances completely public.

This week, Fox defended himself in an interview with CNN in Espanol.

Mr. VICENTE FOX (Former President, Mexico): (Through translator) I am not worried at all about this. I am an honest person, transparent, that look citizens straight in their faces. Fortunately, I have money that's from my life's work. But it's money that I share and used greatly to fight poverty in my country.

O'BOYLE: Political columnist and radio host Sergio Sarmiento thinks the congressional probe should go forward. With so many examples of blatant presidential corruption in Mexico's past, he says it's important that Fox be held to a higher standard. Still, he says Fox is the victim of a political witch-hunt.

Mr. SERGIO SARMIENTO (Political Columnist, Reforma): It's abating Congress that members of the former ruling party, the PRI, who've become extremely rich, who've clearly been much more corrupt than one could possibly imagine that Vicente Fox has been, are now claiming that they have to persecute Vicente Fox for accusations that, at least, up until this point should look very minor.

O'BOYLE: But the corruption probe has already tarnished Fox's image. His approval ratings have dropped noticeably since the scandal erupted. The numbers of his wife have plunged even further. Still, many Mexicans hold on to the image of Fox as an honest man.

At a mall in Mexico City, Francisco Gallego(ph) at goes a common view here.

Mr. FRANCISCO GALLEGO (Resident, Mexico City): President Fox is a good person, but he has been badly influenced by his wife and her family. I just think he's a good man who fell in love with the wrong woman.

O'BOYLE: Surely, that's not the legacy Fox wants to leave.

For NPR News, I'm Michael O'Boyle in Mexico City.

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