VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico -- One day this year, citizen activist Jose Manuel Arias Rodriguez was told by the state of Tabasco that his request under the state’s sunshine-in-government law had been granted.
Sprawled before him were 14 boxes of receipts and other paperwork for the running of the stately governor’s mansion known as Quinta Grijalva.
Arias began to dig, and before long he discovered some of the figurative nails that have helped construct the coffin for the political career of former Gov. Andres Granier Melo, subject of one of Mexico’s biggest political graft investigations in years. Granier, a 65-year-old chemist, returned this week from Miami to face temporary arrest on allegations that his administration ran up massive state debt and looted hundreds of millions of dollars from state coffers before leaving office at the end of December.
The scandal swirling around Granier has elements of a political potboiler: A seized airplane with 23 bundles of cash, drunken boasts of shopping trips to Beverly Hills, a wine cellar with exquisite French vintages, yacht trips and the discovery a few weeks ago of a huge stash of Mexican pesos.
What Arias discovered was far more mundane: He found receipts for onions and tomatoes. But what he noticed about those bills – and numerous other bills – were that Quinta Grijalva paid suppliers far above market value for goods.
The governor’s mansion paid 100 pesos (about $8) for a kilo of white onions, nearly seven times the price in the market. Medicine to kill ticks on the governor’s dog cost 1,700 pesos, rather than the 100 pesos in a pet store. The overbilling went on and on, box after box.
Arias found payroll information that showed Granier employed 160 people at the mansion, including some 16 drivers, and an equal number of cooks. Yet even with such a large staff, accounts showed that the governor repeatedly contracted private waiters and cooks to staff his banquets.
Arias made his findings public in a press conference in January called by the Santo Tomas Ecological Association, the activist group he co-heads, and since then the scandal surrounding Granier has only grown.
The information that Arias dug up through freedom-of-information requests played only a small role in the growing public ire over Granier. But across Mexico, the door guarding the inner workings of state and federal government has been pried slightly ajar by a series of laws giving citizens the right to information.
It hasn’t been easy. And transparency experts note that greater access to information is far from a panacea to the rampant corruption that afflicts Mexico.
“Citizens still require a powerful and independent anti-corruption agency that actually prosecutes these cases,” said Eduardo Bohorquez, head of Transparencia Mexicana, a branch of Transparency International, a group that publicizes political corruption around the world.
Bohorquez said that airing corruption without bringing prosecutions might paralyze a citizenry that wants change but feels impotent to bring it about.
“What you have is a lot of exposure . . . but a lot of impunity. Impunity is probably more complicated to face than corruption itself,” Bohorquez said.
Mexico has both a federal access-to-information law approved more than a decade ago and a series of more recent state laws that are usually weaker.
“We have one of the best access-to-information laws at the federal level in the world,” Bohorquez said. “This is one of the real achievements of the country.”
But in Tabasco, an oil-rich state that hugs the Gulf of Mexico, state employees blocked repeated requests by citizens under the law, offering no explanation.
“Like many of the states in the southeast, Tabasco is a ranch for politicians. They decide how to do things and you can’t ask them why,” Arias said. “There was no way to find out how money was being spent.”
The state access-to-information law was passed in late 2006, but legislators put off letting it go into effect until September 2008.
Granier had taken office by then, and massive flooding in late 2007 brought a huge inflow of emergency federal funds. Quickly, reports of siphoning of funds flourished. Late that year, the driver for Granier’s finance chief was detained in Merida after disembarking from a small twin-engine aircraft with 8 million pesos (about $730,000) in 23 bundles.
Heartened by the state access-to-information law, a handful of citizens started making enquiries. Among them was Maria Elena Abreu, an accountant with a strong interest in determining how the state spends revenues.
“I think governments should be more transparent,” she said, noting that she’d filed hundreds of requests that have brought records that only heightened her interest.
“There’s an account that’s called ‘diverse debtors.’ There are huge quantities in there. This information is what they’ve always denied me,” she said.
After obtaining some records in early 2010, she was awoken at 1 a.m. on May 24 of that year by pounding at her door. Six armed commandos wearing black hoods entered and rifled through her belongings. One went to her computer and began copying files.
“As they left, one said they had a tip that armed people were in the house,” Abreu said, adding that the commandos declined to say if they were state or federal police. She surmised that someone in government thought she’d uncovered compromising data.
A month later, state auditors announced they were checking Abreu’s tax and business reports. The audit lasted a year, she said.
Efforts to pry free state records exasperated some activists.
“It’s been total opacity. They didn’t want to hand over information. Granier didn’t want to comply with the transparency law,” Arias said.
“It’s a practice of government to hide just about everything in Tabasco,” said a journalist, Antonio Villegas Villamil, who writes for Milenio, a national newspaper.
But Tabasco’s current governor, Arturo Nunez, a leftist politician who wrested control of the governor’s mansion from the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, began detailing the extent of what he described as massive graft. At a press conference in February, he said records for more than $100 million in spending had disappeared, state debts were far bigger than reported, and nearly $200 million in debts to state suppliers were outstanding. He said the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars in other funds were missing.
Since then, leaks have detailed how Granier kept expensive French wines at Quinta Grijalva, including French Romanee-Conti 2005 (valued at over $14,000 a bottle) and Hennessy Richard Cognac that costs nearly $5,000 a bottle.
Last month, a conversation between Granier and other unnamed companions recorded in October 2012 further brought wide public derision. In the recording, Granier boasted that he owned 400 pairs of shoes, 300 suits, 1,000 shirts, and routinely shopped at Saks Fifth Avenue and on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.
Granier later said he’d drunk too much at the time the recording was made and was lying about his wardrobe and shopping habits.
In an interview with Televisa before his return from Miami, Granier said he and his family live in a “rather austere” way, that they own 13 properties and that his net worth is around $2 million.
“I have a clear conscience and I’m innocent,” he said.
On Friday, prosecutors ordered Granier’s detention for 30 days as they deepened their investigation. Later in the day, he was taken to a Mexico City hospital complaining of a heart ailment.
Some politicians in Tabasco assert that more details of malfeasance and graft are likely to emerge.
Francisco Castillo, a state legislator from the opposition center-right National Action Party, said he has heard that prosecutors have traced at least 19 properties, including in Mexico City, Cancun, Miami and Houston, to Granier and his family
Castillo said corruption allegedly flourished under the previous government, including under the oversight of former state treasurer Jose Manuel Saiz Pineda, who was arrested last week while trying to enter the United States, and with the participation of numerous business owners cashing in on state contracts.
“It wasn’t just Granier and Saiz. It was a lot of people – suppliers, business owners,” Castillo said. “If only Granier goes to jail, it won’t fix anything.”