By Simon Gardner
VALLE DE BRAVO, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto misrepresented to authorities the circumstances under which he acquired one of his properties, public documents reviewed by Reuters show, a discrepancy that could add to a controversy surrounding his personal finances.
According to an official asset declaration first made in 2013, Pena Nieto stated that he acquired the property through a "donation" or gift from his father. Pena Nieto, who made his asset declaration public in 2013 as part of a transparency and accountability push, has since updated and ratified this declaration twice.
Under a public information request, Reuters reviewed documents showing that Pena Nieto actually purchased the property in question - a 1,000 square meter piece of land in the town of Valle de Bravo - in 1988 from a third party. He paid 11.2 million pesos, equivalent to about $5,000 at the time, the registry shows. His wealth declaration lists the property as being valued at just 11,200 "old" pesos, the equivalent to about $5 at the time.
Reuters was unable to determine why Pena Nieto's declaration mischaracterized the purchase as a gift and understated the price. The declaration lists eight other real estate properties, five of which are also listed as donations. Reuters could not determine if those five properties, which include houses and land, are accurately characterized.
Mexican public officials face no requirement to explain the source of any funds used to obtain properties they receive as gifts, but they are required to accurately declare how they acquire their properties.
The president's office, asked to explain the discrepancies in the documents, declined repeated requests to comment.
Several hours after Reuters published its story, the president's spokesman publicly released a letter on the presidential website addressed to Reuters reporter Simon Gardner.
It asserted that the property was a donation and that Pena Nieto's father had purchased it in his son's name.
Pena Nieto has been under pressure in recent months over a series of conflict-of-interest scandals centered on properties he, his wife Angelica Rivera and Finance Minister Luis Videgaray acquired from government contractors.
Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui and her colleagues reported last year that Rivera was acquiring a multi-million dollar home from a unit of a government contractor which was part of a Chinese-led consortium that had won a $3.75 billion high speed rail contract. The Wall Street Journal later reported that Pena Nieto purchased a home from a developer which, the newspaper said, went on to win millions of dollars in state public works contracts.
The president has denied any wrongdoing. But the scandals have overshadowed a major economic reform drive that Pena Nieto was hoping would boost the world's 15th biggest economy.
Pena Nieto will publish his annual asset declaration update later this week with more details, an official at the presidential palace said. He will not reveal his wife's assets, because she is neither a public servant nor financially dependent on him, the official added.
Ten lawyers and law professors at top Mexican law firms and law schools consulted by Reuters said the incorrect asset declaration could spell legal trouble for the president. The discrepancy between the registry documents and his official declaration constitute a false statement to authorities, they said.
Several lawyers pointed to the Federal Law of Public Servants' Responsibilities. Article 80 of the law lists which officials, including "even the president of the republic," must declare their wealth to authorities under oath. "The public servant whose wealth declaration lacks truth ... will be suspended, and when its importance merits it, removed from office and disqualified for three months to three years," the law states.
Several lawyers said they thought the president's wealth declaration should be audited given the discrepancy.
"The property is declared as a donation from the father, when it is in reality the result of a purchase," said Victor Blanco, a Mexican lawyer and academic. "It is incurring falsehood."
Officials who are unable to justify the source of their wealth can face an audit for suspected illicit enrichment. If proven, that would be a crime under Article 224 of Mexico's Federal Penal Code.
One lawyer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he believed the president could argue that the money used to buy the property was donated to him, and that the discrepancy would not be a major worry.
Lawyers added that there are few precedents for prosecuting senior officials under these laws.
Reuters was unable to check Pena Nieto's other real estate holdings because his wealth declaration doesn't list the addresses of the properties. Mexico's opaque and decentralized property registry makes it difficult to verify the ownership and purchase details of land and buildings. There are more than 220 public registry offices across the country, many of which lack searchable electronic databases. Even modernized registries can be of limited use.
At some public registry offices, members of the public can search an intranet of property records. However, to request a copy of a particular property registration, the user must know the number of the "folio," a compendium of paper records in which properties are originally listed. Searching on an individual's name sometimes turns up no information.
In the case of the president's property identified by Reuters, a computer search in the public registry in Valle de Bravo, a leafy upmarket retreat a two-hour drive southwest of Mexico City, initially came up empty for Pena Nieto. A reporter then reviewed old paper files at the registry office, and found the president's name along with a folio number. That enabled the reporter to find the records for the Valle de Bravo property.
There are other discrepancies in Pena Nieto's declaration of assets.
He reported the value of the Valle de Bravo property as 11,200 so-called "old pesos," when the property registry shows he originally paid 11.2 million old pesos. Mexico was gripped by a deep economic crisis in the 1980s, and in the early 1990s the peso was revalued by lopping three zeros off the hyper-inflated currency.
Pena Nieto's declaration includes two other properties registered in old pesos, which lawyers said appeared to underplay their real worth.
One of those properties is a 560 square meter piece of land containing a 492 square meter house. The president's declaration says he acquired the property in cash in 1982, when he was a 16-year-old schoolboy. The other property is a 24,000 square meter piece of farmland.
Converting the declared amounts using today's exchange rate, those two properties are valued in his declaration at a total of just $102.
Not counting these three properties, Pena Nieto declared assets totaling about $3 million in May 2014.
Pena Nieto made his first declaration of assets as president in early 2013. At that time, he listed nine properties, six of which were described as donations. He didn't report their locations or values or name any of the donors.
In May 2013, he amended his declaration to specify that the donated properties came from his mother or father, and assigned them values. Pena Nieto ratified his declaration again last year, but still withheld the location of the properties.
Shortly after filing his first asset declaration with the government, Pena Nieto followed his two immediate predecessors and made the report public. He vowed his government would be open.
"I am doing this, not just because of a legal mandate, but also as an ethical obligation ... to do with accountability," he said at the time. "Above all I reaffirm my democratic conviction to conduct myself with absolute transparency."
(Edited by Michael Williams)