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Latin America

Peña Nieto admits that businessman paid taxes on First Lady's Miami apartment

Ricardo Pierdant, a friend of the president, initially denied that he paid the $30,000 in taxes - an amount three times larger that the Mexican president's monthly salary
16 Ago 2016 – 09:32 PM EDT
Mexico's presidential couple are embroiled in a new influence-peddling controversy. Crédito: Getty Images

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has admitted that a U.S.-based Mexican businessman paid nearly $30,000 in taxes in 2013 on First Lady Angelica Rivera's apartment in an upscale South Florida enclave, as Univision News reported last week.

The admission revealed inconsistencies in some statements initially made in the case involving the presidential couple and businessman Ricardo Pierdant in a potential influence-peddling controversy. The amount Pierdant paid is nearly triple Peña Nieto's monthly salary.

"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.

Peña Nieto's comments contrast with Pierdant's statements to Univision Investiga, in which he claimed that he had never paid a year's worth of property taxes on the First Lady's Key Biscayne apartment.

"That is totally false. I paid taxes on unit 404, not on any other apartment," said Pierdant in a phone interview.

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.

Peña Nieto admitted that his wife owns unit 304 at Key Biscayne's Ocean Club, an apartment directly below the one owned by Pierdant. Rivera bought the unit for $1.8 million in 2005.

"He's a friend who is there and, indeed, did her a favor on a single occasion in the 11 years she's had the property," Peña Nieto said in the Channel 2 interview. "On one occasion because my wife was here, she said, 'Hey, can you cover the property tax and I'll pay you back here?' which is what in fact happened," Peña Nieto told López-Dóriga.

The president assured that the First Lady had already paid back the money. But there are still many unanswered questions.

In 2013, the year Pierdant paid the First Lady's property taxes, Rivera didn't engage in any professional activity; her last job as an actress was in 2007 on the telenovela "Distilling Love."

Meanwhile, according to Mexico's transparency portal, the president's salary is 142,218 Mexican pesos a month, roughly $10,895 dollars at that time. If the presidential couple paid the property taxes that year, they would have needed three months worth of Peña Nieto's salary, plus interest.

Articles 88 and 89 of Mexico's public servants law prohibit gifts of any kind to public officials worth more than $44. Pierdant and the presidential couple have justified the loan by saying it was in Rivera's name; arguing she is not technically a public official.

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

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.

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.

Rivera's three-bedroom apartment is valued at over $3 million and is connected by private elevator with Pierdant's unit.

Pierdant bought his unit for more than $2 million in cash despite a more than $1 million lien on another property in Miami.

Pierdant told Univision Investiga that the purchase was not unusual given the volatile Miami real estate market.

“I saw a good opportunity here. You lose one and you gain another. I had the money available,” he said.

The 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.

During the interview with López-Dóriga, Peña Nieto said nothing illega happened but acknowldged the incident "created the perception that something wrong had been done."