RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The first lady of Mexico is known, or you might say notorious, for her designer clothes and European vacations. But one possession was sufficiently problematic that she'd promise to sell it, a mansion bought under controversial circumstances. She purchased the home at below market rates from a contractor with connections to her husband. The scandal has been one of the biggest to rock the president's administration. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, an investigation has been launched, but months later, many questions remain regarding the purchase, and the first lady still hasn't sold the house.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Last November, just back from a state visit to China, a defensive Angelica Rivera, the wife of President Enrique Pena Nieto, distributed a videotaped message.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
ANGELICA RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "I have nothing to hide," said Rivera, reading from prepared remarks. The former soap opera actress said she's purchasing the house with her own earnings. Rivera says she began planning the design of the house in 2009 and secured a $4 million loan to be paid over eight years from a company owned by the Grupo Higa construction form. The well-connected firm was part of a consortium that won Mexico's first-ever multibillion-dollar high-speed train bid. However, the deal was quietly canceled just weeks before the firm's connection to the first couple's house was revealed, and Rivera videotaped her remarks. Looking intently into the camera toward the end of her seven-minute video, Rivera promised that despite having done nothing wrong, she will sell her interest in the custom-built home.
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RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "Because," she added, "I don't want this to continue to be a pretext to offend or defame my family." NPR obtained all public documents registered to the first lady's house located in one of the capital's most exclusive neighborhoods. We showed them to the head of Mexico's public notary college and the president of a leading real estate association. Association president Antonio Hanna Grayeb says according to the documents, the house has not been sold.
ANTONIO HANNA GRAYEB: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Grayeb, however, warns that property transfers in Mexico can take as long as one or two months to show up in public records. When asked about any recent sales, a spokesman for the president says none has happened. When asked why, spokesman Paulo Carreno said it's the president's understanding that the first lady won't sell until the investigations into allegations of conflict of interest involving the first couple has been completed. When asked to speak with a representative for the first lady, Carreno said he didn't believe she had one.
Not making good on her promise to sell her share of the house is just the latest gaffe first lady Rivera is facing. Her spending habits, including shopping trips to Beverly Hills and Europe, her purchase of a luxury condo in Miami, and rumored marital problems with the president dominate social media here; this all at the same time a government agency reported that 2 million more Mexicans fell into poverty since her husband took office. As for when the investigation into the conflict of interest charges involving the first couple will be concluded, a spokesman for the investigator appointed by Pena Nieto would only say, quote, "shortly." That's not good enough, however, for some members of Congress.
FERNANDO BELAUNZARAN: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "Too much time has gone by with zero results," says Fernando Belaunzaran, a congressman with the opposition PRD Party. He says from the outset, the president has used the investigation as a stalling tactic in hopes the public would forget about the scandal after a few months. Belaunzaran and other Congress members have introduced a formal resolution demanding they investigate or present his findings. Political analyst Denise Dresser says she doubts any meaningful results will be made public anytime soon.
DENISE DRESSER: Because it delves too deeply into the nature of power of crony capitalism and of opacity in the way that government deals are brokered.
KAHN: And Dresser says without a transparent investigation, Pena Nieto's credibility with the public, now the lowest of any Mexican president in the past 20 years, will continue to erode. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.
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