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Latin America & Caribbean

Mexico's president caught up in Miami real estate controversy

A vacation home used by Mexico's presidential couple in a luxury gated community in South Florida revives concerns about influence peddling
10 Ago 2016 – 01:18 PM EDT
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Mexico's first lady Angelica Rivera uses this apratment gifted to her by a Mexican businessman when she visits South Florida Crédito: Rafael Arranz/Univision

A luxury South Florida oceanfront apartment used during undisclosed vacations by Mexico’s presidential couple is owned by a well-connected Mexican businessman, fueling persistent allegations of influence peddling that have swirled around President Enrique Peña Nieto and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The Miami-based businessman, Ricardo Pierdant, confirmed to Univision Investiga that he allows the Presidential couple to use the apartment at the resort-style apartment complex 'Ocean Club,' but denied any conflict of interest. "They asked to borrow it. We've been friends for a long time," he said.

The latest real estate revelation comes on top of the purchase by the First Lady Angélica Rivera 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.

Rivera denied wrongdoing and said she had bought the house with earnings from her career as an actress. She later returned the mansion and Peña Nieto issued a belated apology last month.

Rivera has previously acknowledged owning another unit in the same building as Pierdant's apartment, located in a gated condominium in Key Biscayne, an exclusive Miami enclave popular with wealthy Latin American families.

Rivera purchased her apartment in 2005 for $1.8 million. The 3-bedroom apartment, now worth more than $3 million, is located on the floor below Pierdant's. The two units - #304 and #404 - are connected by a private elevator.

Peña Nieto's office did not respond to a message from Univision Investiga asking for details about about the vacation arrangement with Pierdant. A presidential spokesperson denied separate allegations published in The Guardian on Tuesday alleging that a company owned by Pierdant was "a contender to run Mexico's ports."

Pierdant "has not had contracts with the Government of Mexico and nor is he participating in any current proceedings," according to the statement published via the presidency's official Twitter account.

In another curious twist to the vacation arrangement, a company linked to Pierdant paid the 2013 real estate taxes for Rivera’s unit (#304), valued at almost $30,000, according to Miami-Dade County public records reviewed by Univision Investiga.

Pierdant, denied to Univison that he paid the taxes on Rivera’s unit. “Show me where I paid (the taxes). That’s totally false. I pay for #404, and no other apartment,” he said in a phone interview.

Univision sent the tax records to Pierdant showing that a company he manages, Biscayne Ocean Holdings, paid the taxes for Rivera's unit at Ocean Tower One. Pierdant did not reply to the emails or further phone calls.

Rivera has since paid her own taxes on the unit. However, Pierdant currently owes the county $86,000 in property taxes for his own unit. for 2014 and 2015, according to the county's website.

Pierdant, 49, owns the Pierdant Group, a Mexican industrial goods firm, as well as a Miami-based bike-sharing company, DecoBike. He bought his Ocean Club unit in 2010, not long after Peña Nieto and Rivera began dating and a year before they married in 2011.

Pierdant paid $2 million cash, despite a large existing debt on a former Miami property he owned, according to documents obtained by Univision Investiga. In March 2010, a circuit court judge in Miami-Dade County issued a judgment against Pierdant and his wife Maria del Carmen ordering them to pay $1.25 million in favor of U.S. Century Bank.

Pierdant said there was nothing unusual in the purchase, though his financial difficulties at the time raise questions about how he could afford it without the help of a wealthy intermediary. “I saw a good opportunity here. You lose one and you gain another. I had the money available,” he said, noting that abundance of real estate bargains during the recession.

"It was not the only property I bought on the cheap,” he said. “I bought in Dadeland cheap and I have two apartments in Brickell now worth $400,000," he said, referring to two well-known South Florida addresses. "If I had the money I would have bought the whole building,” he said.

Univision consulted several Miami real estate lawyers who said that while the transactions appeared to be legal, they didn’t seem ethical. "It's not common that a person who has debt pays cash," said Betty González, a real estate lawyer. "If it happens, it's most important that there is transparency about where the funds are coming from and the person who appears on paper for the property," she added.

Two years after the $1.25 million judgement, Pierdant reached an agreement with U.S. Century Bank, the terms of which do not appear in public records. He told Univision the deal allowed the bank to recover a percentage of the money it was seeking.

"That apartment is mine and that's it. What's more, I'm selling it,'' Pierdant said when Univision Investiga asked about the property's real owner.

Pierdant told Univision that he has been a friend of Peña Nieto since he was 18 years old when they were studying law at the private Universidad Panamericana in Mexico City, but denied holding any government contracts or other conflict of interest.

“Clear dealings and lengthy friendships. As we are friends, I don’t ask any favors,” he said.

Pierdant holds a bikesharing concession with the city of Miami Beach and also in San Diego, and is hoping to begin operations in the Mexican city of Puebla. “The only contract that has anything to do with the government is with the opposition,” he added, noting that Puebla state is governed by the opposition National Action Party (PAN).

Pierdant added that when Peña Nieto was governor of the State of Mexico (2005-2011) he accompanied him on a mission to China. “I’ve been traveling to China for 25 years. I told him it would be good to take a look over there,” he said.

He also noted that his sister Aurora Pierdant is a longtime public servant; she's a former head of new contracts for the state oil company PEMEX. She left four years ago and now advises clients bidding on PEMEX contracts.

He also conceded that he has a promotional goods company that has sold material to Peña Nieto’s party, the PRI.

“Nothing for the PRD,” he added, referring to one of Mexico’s opposition parties, the Democratic Revolutionary Party.