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.