A Mexican Candidate’s Income and Asset Declaration Lambasted as “Amazing,” “Absurd,” “Inconsistent”   

Under pressure from civil society, Mexican officials are starting to come clean about their personal finances, but as Marcelo Ebrard, a candidate in this June’s parliamentary elections, has learned, a half-baked disclosure of one’s financial life can backfire.  His disclosure drew nothing but scorn from the experts the on-line journal Sinembargo had review it. They found it implausible that a senior member of the Mexican political establishment claimed to own no house and to earn less than 150,000 pesos (~ $9,600) a month after leaving high office.  They questioned why money he received from his political party was not disclosed, contracts that might create conflict of interest were he elected not revealed, and his wife’s assets not reported.  What he released did not meet international standards for financial disclosure, and the disclosure, they bemoaned, was thus a “lost opportunity” to establish a new benchmark for transparency by political candidates.

While these criticisms may harm Ebrard’s chances of being elected to Mexico’s lower house of parliament, that he had to release a financial statement and that civil society invested the time and effort to examine it are both encouraging signs that Mexico’s anticorruption movement is taking off.

Ebrard had tried to make it sound as if, in releasing details of his finances he was doing so voluntarily (“although not required to register as a candidate, I am disclosing a summary of my financial situation . . .. “) but in fact he had no choice.  Movimiento Ciudadano, the party he had recently joined to pursue his candidacy, requires their legislative candidates to file such a disclosure.  The requirement is new, adopted in response to the scandal that has engulfed current Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto over his wife’s purchase of a multimillion dollar mansion from a developer that does business with the government.  The uproar forced Peña Nieto to make public the confidential financial disclosure form he filed when taking office, a first for Mexican presidents who, like the rest of the Mexican political establishment, values secrecy.

Movimiento Ciudadano’s demand that its candidates break with this tradition of secrecy is a welcome development and one other Mexican political parties should imitate — although the party needs to iron out some kinks in its disclosure requirement.  Candidates are given no form to fill out, apparently leaving them free, as Ebrard did, to provide a sketchy one-page summary of what they think citizens should be know about their finances.  While the party’s web site states that candidate disclosures will be posted on the site, so far the only way to review Ebrard’s statement is to watch the one minute plus video of his handing it over to members of the party’s transparency committee and hitting the stop button when he holds the statement towards the camera.  (His body language and facial expressions throughout the video, which includes a brief statement he reads extolling the virtues of transparency, suggest he would rather be anywhere but there.)

Although as I have said here and here, public disclosure of officials’ finances is not the anticorruption silver bullet, but when the disclosures are made public and civil society invests the time and effort to scrutinize them, they are an important piece of the anticorruption pie.  The zest with which Mexican citizens dove into Ebrard’s disclosure is a promising sign that as the practice of public disclosure spreads, an engaged and informed citizenry is prepared to make good use of the disclosure forms.

The best result of the Ebrard dust up would be that he responds with a full and complete disclosure — answering his critics and setting the record straight.  By many accounts he ran Mexico City and its environs, the largest metropolitan area in the world, well during his six year term as governor.  That is no mean feat, and it is an experience that could make him a valuable member of the Mexican assembly.  Moreover, were he to thoroughly reveal his finances before the election, he would set a powerful example for the rest of the Mexican establishment — and at the same time burnish his credentials as a future leader of the country.

Even if this happy ending does not come to pass, the precedent Movimiemento Ciudadano has set by requiring their nominees to disclose their personal finances and that civil society has created by analyzing the disclosure augur well for the Mexican anticorruption movement.

7 thoughts on “A Mexican Candidate’s Income and Asset Declaration Lambasted as “Amazing,” “Absurd,” “Inconsistent”   

  1. Rick, in your third-to-last paragraph you anticipated my question, which was how this example relates to your earlier posts criticizing what you viewed as excessive optimism about the potential for asset disclosures to serve as an effective check on corruption by public officials. I might push you to say a bit more on your views here. I think we can all agree that asset disclosure requirements are no panacea (what is?), but the tone of your earlier posts was much more skeptical, while this one seems more optimistic.

    And a somewhat related question: You emphasize, rightly, the importance of civil society and media willing to scrutinize the disclosures if they are to have any effect (and you might also have mentioned the importance of a public with the means and inclination to hold officials accountable). But in your view is there a value in introducing the asset disclosure requirements even before such a vibrant civil society has emerged, or is it more your position that countries should only bother imposing admittedly burdensome and resource-intensive disclosure requirements when civil society watchdogs and other institutional prerequisites are already in place?

  2. This question is probably too expansive for Rick to have the time to answer, but I wonder what has made the anticorruption movement start to take hold in Mexico (assuming that the characterization of it doing so, as presented here, is accurate). There are many countries where some sort of corruption revealed, but nothing ever comes of it. If there was anything that was done that can serve as a model or that can help us deduce where such campaigns are likely to be effective, it would be useful to know.

  3. Thanks for this fascinating post, Rick. To tie together some of the points that you raise here with Julissa’s recent discussion of Larreguy, Marshall and Snyder’s paper on mayoral elections in Mexica (available here: https://globalanticorruptionblog.com/2015/02/23/mexicos-corrupt-mayors-who-gets-punished-at-the-ballot-box-and-why/), I wonder if one of the reasons why there has been so much blowback from Ebrard’s partial disclosure of his financial information is that he is affiliated with a political party that has taken a public stance against corruption (Movimiento Ciudadano). Perhaps the “hypocrisy effect” discussed in Julissa’s post, in which voters in mayoral elections penalized politicians for engaging in corrupt actions more heavily at the ballot box if they were affiliated with a political party whose platform was focused on combatting corruption, is equally applicable in other contexts, such as the one you have described in this post. Regardless of whether or not we believe that the “hypocrisy effect” may have contributed to the public outcry against Ebrard’s unsatisfactory disclosure of his public information, however, this is a very promising development and I completely agree that the precedent Movimiento Ciudadano has set in requiring its candidates to disclose their financial information should be followed by other political parties in Mexico.

    • Great points Lauren — my gut is that the “hypocrisy effect” you describe is absolutely an aspect of why this particular candidate has attracted so much blowback for his half-baked disclosures. It’s sort of like Governor Andrew Cuomo establishing an anticorruption commission and then de-clawing it, saying things to suggest that corruption will never be completely eradicated in New York after all, that attracts the attention of anticorruption civil society. Rhetoric and campaign platforms are important, and I love to see candidates running on anticorruption positions because I think one of two things will happen, and both are good for anticorruption efforts overall: either 1) the candidate will be successful in uprooting some corruption or 2) civil society will take notice if the candidate falls short and call attention to corruption nonetheless, generating more voter demand for anticorruption candidates. Great news for Mexico, and New York too.

      • Lauren, your tie in to Julissa’s post about the hypocrisy effect has made me wonder what effect the MC disclosure requirement may have on other parties (as opposed to voters and civil society). While I admire MC’s disclosure requirement, I’d worry that the negative press Ebrand has received, which was itself only possible as a result of a robust civil service, will perversely encourage other parties not to adopt similar requirements. They can watch MC candidates raked over the coals, with perhaps an attendant drop in votes, while not providing any information themselves. I guess I’m skeptical that a corruption clean bill of health will garner a lot of new votes–if only because it will get fewer headlines–though it could certainly send voters running. It seems like a big risk, with a small possible payout, *unless* voters are able to compare disclosures between candidates. At present MC may be out on a limb, with their candidates perhaps less likely to be elected (because votes can learn about their irregularities) as compared to others who face no disclosure requirements to begin with; this is despite the fact that arguably these requirements allow MC to attract and field less corrupt candidates. Are there concerns about tipping points in terms of disclosure (i.e. if a majority of parties require it, it’s good; if it’s less than a certain percentage perhaps it hurts more than it helps)?

        • I think you’ve raised a fascinating point here, Melanie (though a potentially troubling one for anticorruption advocates). My initial reaction to this phenomenon was very similar to your own, namely that this is actually a potentially problematic outcome if we want anticorruption candidates/parties to succeed and also hope that financial disclosures might be adopted by other political parties. Moreover, as you point out, unilateral financial disclosure does seem like a particularly good example of a high risk, low reward proposition (best case scenario, you’re shown not to be a corrupt actor which ideally the electorate believed already, worst case you demonstrate, quite publicly, that something might be problematic with your finances). That being said, this analysis presumes that there were no other ‘lower-cost’ methods of signaling an anti-corruption stance available to MC, which might not be the case.

          I’m loath to suggest that the takeaway from this situation is that political parties should not implement financial disclosure requirements unilaterally as I agree with Rick that this phenomenon is an important development and one that we should encourage other parties to adopt. That being said, I think that the “hypocrisy effect,” if applicable here, actually suggests a stronger conclusion than you’ve alluded to, namely I think that it’s likely this effect would damage anti-corruption candidates/candidates who disclose their personal finances (if there are problems with this disclosure) regardless of if a minority or majority of parties have adopted this requirement as the problem is that a party that attempted to appear ‘anti-corruption’ failed quite publicly in its claims. If this analysis is correct then universal financial disclosures may be the only way to avoid the ‘hypocrisy effect’ trap.

  4. Rick, in your post you mention something very important: the civil society in Mexico is becoming more conscious and more active day by day. In a very general way, we can trace the origins of this awakening of the Mexican civil society to 1985, when an earthquake hit Mexico City. Back then, the government´s response was very slow, and urgent actions needed to be taken to face and overcome the catastrophe. With the government´s response being so slow, the civil society organized itself and faced the situation. Since then, and even though we still have a long way to go, the Mexican civil society has become more conscious of the problems that out country faces, and has become more active in trying to solve them, and in reviewing the government´s actions directed to solve them.

    What you mention in your post is an example of that. Nowadays, unlike five or tens years ago, we will not accept opaque dealings, declarations, and actions from our politicians: we are starting to demand more transparency and efficiency from our authorities.

    Another example of this is the formation of several think tanks and journals that are constantly evaluating the government´s and the authorities´s actions related to the economy, education, transparency, public spending, justice, and security, among others, and sharing their evaluations with the general public. The most notorious think tanks and journals are:

    1.- México Evalúa (http://mexicoevalua.org/)
    2.- México, ¿cómo vamos? (http://www.mexicocomovamos.mx/)
    3.- Centro de Investigación para el Desarrollo, A.C. (CIDAC, http://www.cidac.org/esp/index.php)
    4.- Revista Proceso (www.proceso.com.mx)
    5.- SinEmbargo (sinembargo.mx)

    Another two important steps that our civil society has taken are: 1) strengthening out democratic institutions, and 2) learning to punish or reward our politicians through democratic means. This is something that can be seen since 1997. Before 1997, the presidents political party always had the majority in both chambers in the Congress. But since 1997, this has not happened: no political party has had absolute majority in the Congress, which means, on one side, that the diverse voices of our society are starting to be represented in the Congress, and on the other, that if we disagree with the actions of our politicians, we will turn and consider other political options to choose our authorities from.

    We still have a very long way to go in Mexico, but you are right, with our civil society becoming more conscious and active, the Mexican anticorruption movement is kicking off.

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