Mexico's communications chief trips over his words

A government secretary of communications ought to know a thing or two about, well, communications.

And yet Mexico's communications secretary, Luis Tellez, has been embroiled in a scandal involving his private conversations, telephone calls and e-mail traffic, some of it recorded surreptitiously and some in a clumsy accident. And all of it chock-full of embarrassing details.

He uses obscenities to trash associates and opponents alike. He accuses a former president of grand theft. He barks orders beyond his purview.

Coming just a few months before midterm elections, the comments, plus others that appear to reveal rather sleazy government conduct by Tellez, roiled Mexican politics and gave ammunition to the fiercest critics of the administration of President Felipe Calderon and of the country's political system as a whole.

After resisting for weeks demands that he resign, Tellez was forced to quit Tuesday. He had become too much of a liability.

One of Tellez's most damning conversations was taped after he called a woman on her cellphone, got her voicemail and thought he had hung up. Instead, the phone recorded a conversation he went on to have with a group of friends.

The woman, who has cast herself as a scorned lover, described the origins of the tape to a prominent Mexican journalist, who aired it on her morning radio program. In the recording, Tellez cavalierly accuses former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari of stealing huge sums of money from a secret discretionary fund. Before he resigned, Tellez confirmed that the conversation about Salinas took place. But he said he was speaking informally and "improperly" and, in fact, had no evidence that Salinas stole money.

Tellez worked for the former president during Salinas' 1988-94 term, when the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, held virtually monolithic control of the country. Tellez later joined Calderon's center-right National Action Party, or PAN, which has ruled since 2000.

Tellez said the woman whose cellphone recorded the call was someone he did not know personally and who had tried to blackmail him. The woman, Diana Pando, gave a very different account.

"He used me and he threw me away," Pando told the newspaper El Universal.

She said Tellez repeatedly ordered her to delete the recording, and she denied trying to extort money from him: "I only wanted his affection," she said.

Speaking on the radio program that first aired the tape, Pando let loose with other shocking claims. She said she telephoned Salinas in London to tell him of the accusation Tellez had made. The former president said he'd get back to her, Pando said. A few days later, Pando recounted, a man saying he was calling on behalf of Salinas told Pando she would die if she released the tape.

Pando reportedly has fled the country.

But Tellez's troubles were only just beginning. Phone conversations, apparently taped illegally, were leaked to the media. In them, Tellez can be heard discussing hostile deals involving the leading telephone monopoly (owned by Mexico's richest man) and its interest in obtaining rights to digital television broadcasts.

Though it's unclear whether anything explicitly illegal is discussed, the conversations hint at backroom horse-trading and favor-granting. At one point, Tellez tells an associate to use Calderon's name in asserting authority to accomplish something Tellez wants done.

At another, an evidently exasperated Tellez complains: "Oh, this institutionalism. Turns out I miss the PRI," a reference apparently to the days of one-party rule, when there was zero transparency and deals were easier to cut.

With scandal swirling around him, Tellez again went public late last month to apologize for his use of vulgarities and to angrily denounce "cowardly interests" who he said were out to ruin him. He did not address details of the later leaked calls.

Instead, he fired his No. 2, Assistant Communications Secretary Purificacion Carpinteyro, and was trying to have her prosecuted for allegedly leaking the tapes. She denied the accusation. It was not clear whether Tellez's removal will end that case.

Carpinteyro said the head of a regulatory agency gave her the tapes in January after receiving them from an anonymous source. She reported this to Calderon, she said, who instructed her to hand them over to the Interior Ministry for investigation -- which she did, after making a copy.

Rumors then began to circulate that additional tapes exist in which Tellez insults other politicians, including Calderon.

Denise Dresser, a leading political commentator here, said the tragedy of the scandal was that, despite the much-hailed advent of democracy in Mexico after the PRI's political monopoly ended in 2000, many underhanded practices remain. Tellez, she said, was merely doing what was expected of him.

Mexico today has "officials like Tellez, with impeccable credentials, splendid ties, stellar reputations, enviable contacts, much-praised speeches," Dresser wrote in the newspaper Reforma. "But behind the facade appears a person willing to play the game in the same old way, willing to close [his] eyes to the most obvious corruption."

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