LITIGATION : Alleged Corruption in Mexico Now an Issue in British Courts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The controversy over the alleged solicitation of a $1 million bribe for a Mexican government contract now has moved into the British courts, where a former IBM representative and a former Cabinet minister accuse each other of slander.

The case has proven highly embarrassing for the Mexican government, which has worked hard to eliminate even the appearance of official corruption in recent years.

The issue also is especially sensitive now, as American, Canadian and Mexican lawmakers consider a North American Free Trade Agreement that would eliminate commercial barriers--including those on government contracts--among the three countries.

To complicate matters, Mexican government actions in the case have caused some observers to warn privately of a "chilling effect" that will discourage other foreigners in business from reporting bribe solicitations.

Kaveh Moussavi--a British citizen and former IBM representative who says a bribe was demanded from him--filed a defamation suit on April 30 against Andres Caso Lombardo, formerly Mexico's communications and transportation minister.

On Monday, in a news conference hosted by the Interior Ministry, Caso Lombardo announced that he will countersue Moussavi.

Both actions stem from Moussavi's claims that three men, whom he could not identify, insisted that he pay $1 million to help IBM land a $22 million contract for a computerized air traffic control system here. Moussavi, who said in a Financial Times interview that he was working at the time as an independent contractor for IBM, did not pay the bribe; IBM did not get the contract.

Three days later, Caso Lombardo--then communications and transportation minister--publicly accused Moussavi of lying and threatened to put him in jail for making unsubstantiated claims. Those statements are the basis of Moussavi's suit.

Moussavi's accusations were investigated by the Federal Accounting Office. But officials said their probe was hampered by Moussavi's inability to name the men who solicited the bribe. "So, if a victim or witness to a crime cannot provide the name and address of the criminal, there is no crime?" Moussavi asked, in an interview with the magazine Proceso.

IBM officials in Mexico and the United States have publicly distanced the company from Moussavi.

But his accusations were widely mentioned as a factor in Caso Lombardo's resignation from his Cabinet post on March 29. Government officials then said he was resigning to accept an appointment as ambassador to Britain, following a Mexican tradition of retiring politicians to the diplomatic corps.

In early April, however, Moussavi wrote about his experiences with Caso Lombardo to the chief of protocol of the British Foreign Office, which is charged with overseeing foreign ambassadors.

Caso Lombardo has never presented his ambassadorial credentials in Britain. He said Monday that he chose not to accept the post so he could be free to clear his name.

"I felt inhibited in my defense actions by the limits placed on a public servant, as far as his actions in the press and the courts," he said.

Caso Lombardo also said he felt that the attacks against him were meant to disparage the Mexican government--a view apparently shared by other members of Mexico's government.

The Mexican attorney general has launched an investigation of the case. In a pointed statement, this nation's top law officer said that, by end of his staff's work, officials plan to arrest either the men who purportedly solicited the bribe or Moussavi. By that reasoning, either Moussavi is telling the truth and the suspects will be produced, or he is lying. If he is lying, he has made libelous statements and should be punished, the attorney general said.

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