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Mexicans Ruling Party Remains Under Fire as Probe Concludes

By Mark Fineman
Los Angeles Times
MEXICO CITY

Just days after this nation's ruling party passed sweeping internal reforms, opposition leaders and independent analysts charged that the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, took a leap backward Thursday.

The PRI majority in Mexico's lower Chamber of Deputies officially ended an investigation that many Mexicans viewed as a crucial test of government accountability - a 10-month legislative probe of a multibillion-dollar government food-distribution company. The company was suspected of widespread corruption in past PRI administrations.

Amid opposition charges of cover-up, the deputies voted along party lines to send to President Ernesto Zedillo a legislative report finding no evidence of high-level corruption and listing only isolated irregularities in the operations of the National Food Staples Co., known by its Spanish acronym, Conasupo.

The investigation included questions about the role Zedillo had played, while serving as federal budget director, in a controversial $7-million Conasupo payment to one of its suppliers. The commission report cleared him of any wrongdoing.

It also found insufficient evidence to support allegations of widespread fraud and endangering public health in Conasupo's purchase and supply of billions of dollars worth of subsidized tortillas, flour, powdered milk and other staples to Mexico's poor.

Staging an opposition walkout in the commission's final session, congressman Javier Gutierrez Vidal of the National Action Party declared: "In this case, the PRI is showing its true face - the face that pretended to cleanse itself at its (national party) assembly last weekend and that today shows itself being the same as before."

Manuel Hinojosa, the investigating commission's PRI chairman, defended the report: "We can't invent things. If they don't like the results, well that's not our fault."

During Thursday's heated, daylong parliamentary debate, a succession of opposition deputies charged the PRI with "sweeping its dirt under the rug."

Some accused it of limiting the investigation to shield senior Conasupo officials, some of whom also were PRI officials. Others asserted that the commission, dominated by PRI congressmen, spent insufficient time and resources investigating the now-jailed elder brother of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

"We're not covering up for anyone. We will fight corruption wherever we find it," responded PRI deputy Juan Manuel Cruz Acevedo.

"I think (the Conasupo report) shows the PRI feels sufficiently strong to do both things at once - talk about reform and protect its own interests," concluded Emilio Zebadua, political science professor at Mexico City's Colegio de Mexico.