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Latin America

Mexican president struggles to explain First Lady’s Miami tax controversy

President Enrique Peña Nieto says a $30,000 property tax payment was paid by a friend as a “favor.” But official record raise more doubts.
17 Ago 2016 – 06:44 PM EDT

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto this week explained away a controversial Miami property tax payment made by a business friend on his wife's behalf arguing it was a one-off favor. His wife, First Lady Angélica Rivera, was out of town and needed someone in Miami to make the payment, he told a Mexican TV station.

But Miami-Dade County property records examined by Univision Investiga show that the 2013 payment was made via an electronic "eCheck" which could have been sent from another country. In 2015 Rivera also used a Miami law firm to make the annual property payment on her $3 million apartment in a luxury condominium in Key Biscayne, an exclusive island near Miami.

The presidential couple's latest real estate revelation comes on top of a scandal involving Rivera's purchase of a $7 million mansion in Mexico City from a government contractor in 2014. The so-called 'Casa Blanca' scandal hurt Peña Nieto's popularity, and badly undermined his much-vaunted efforts to tackle deep-rooted public corruption.

Peña Nieto told Mexico's Channel 2 earlier this week that his wife, First Lady Angelica Rivera, asked the friend, Ricardo Pierdant, a Mexican businessman based in Miami, to make a $30,000 tax payment for her in 2013 apartment because she was in Mexico. Rivera's three-bedroom apartment is located on a floor below another unit owned by Pierdant.

"On a single occasion, we asked him, or my wife asked him, to cover the property tax that year and then he was reimbursed here in Mexico," Peña Nieto said in an interview on Monday with Joaquín López-Dóriga, a news anchor for Mexico's Channel 2. "It was a single occasion because my wife was here (Mexico) , she said, 'Hey, can you cover the property tax and I'll pay you back here?' which is what in fact happened," Peña Nieto said.

A Miami-Dade County property tax official confirmed to Univision that an online payments system has been in effect for at least five years and can be made on the county's website using a credit card. Other options include electronic payments via eCheck, or a regular hand-signed check sent in the mail, the official said.

"An eCheck basically allows you to access your current account electronically and issue a payment to anyone you choose," said Tulio Rodríguez, a business consultant and electronic banking expert with Kores Group in Miami.

Electronic payments can be made internationally, Rodríguez added, as long as the payee has a dollar denominated account in their home country, such as those offered in Mexico by Banamex, the local affiliate of Citibank in the United States.

"You can charge it direct to your credit card via the website from your home computer or you can emit an electronic check charged to your account in the country where the person is," he said. "It's very simple, you can do it not only from a computer but bank these days also have all the mobile applications, and this can be done from your cellphone, it's so easy that, as long as there are funds in your account, and depending on the limits on your credit card."

The first lady used a third payment option to pay her taxes. According to a public information request by Univision Investiga officials provided a copy of a check filed by R&S Law International Group, which was used in March this year to settle the 2015 taxes for Rivera's apartment, for the sum of $37,439.

The law firm, located in Miami, has for the last decade been the registered agent for Rivera's apartment with the Florida Division of Corporations, according to public records.

The law firm had not made Rivera's interest payments prior to this year, the company said in a phone interview. On this occasion, the first lady requested the taxes be paid with a check from a U.S. bank because she was unable to make the payment from Mexico as she had missed the deadline for overseas payments, the company added.

"She made a bank deposit with us and we paid with a cheque from a U.S. bank. We did it this one time, as a favor," a lawyer for the firm said, who asked not to be named.

Articles 88 and 89 of Mexico's public servants law prohibit gifts of any kind to public officials worth more than $44 to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Both Peña Nieto and Pierdant denied that their friendship has been beneficial to Pierdant's business dealings. Peña Nieto and Pierdant deny that the businessman has any contracts with the federal government, or is bidding for one.

"It's completely false that there was a conflict of interest, because this neighbor is someone who lives there, who is based outside Mexico and who has no ... contract with the Mexican government," Peña Nieto told the Mexican TV network, Televisa.

"It is a common and ordinary relationship that can happen between friends and neighbors, but that doesn't suppose in any way an illegal act or doing something wrong," he added.

Asked by Univision Investiga about the electronic payment and if the first lady had any special impediment to pay the taxes from Mexico, the presidential spokesman Eduardo Sánchez replied that he would contact Rivera's office to seek a response. Pierdant did not respond to phone calls or emails seeking his explanation of the payments.

Pierdant originally denied to Univision Investiga making the 2013 property taxes on Rivera's apartment.

The businessman asked to see public records of the payment for his accountant to review. After Univision Investiga sent him those documents by email, Pierdant stopped responding to emails and phone calls.

Pierdant, 49, told Univision Investiga that he's been friends with Peña Nieto since he was 18 when they were both studying at Universidad Panamericana in Mexico City.

He also said he lent his apartment to the presidential couple during stays in Miami. Although it was public knowledge that Rivera had an apartment in Key Biscayne, she had not previously disclosed her agreement with Pierdant.

In an interview with Univision Investiga Pierdant acknowledged that he owns a promotional goods company and has sold material to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), to which Peña Nieto belongs.

Pierdant is also the owner of the Pierdant Group, a Mexican industrial goods firm, as well as a bike-sharing concession in Miami Beach and San Diego. He also plans to begin operating a bike-sharing business in the Mexican city of Puebla.

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