November 3, 2004 in Nation/World

Scandal costs Mexico’s Pemex director his job

Chris Kraul Los Angeles Times
 

MEXICO CITY – The general director of Mexico’s state oil company was replaced Monday amid a scandal involving the use of corporate funds to pay for his wife’s plastic surgery.

The departure of Raul Munoz Leos from Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, comes a week after Mexican newspapers detailed how his wife, Hilda Ledezma Mayoral, billed the company for liposuction treatments costing a total of $12,000 last year and this April.

Although Pemex insisted that any of its employees and their dependents were entitled to similar medical reimbursements and that Munoz Leos repaid the company, the damage was done. Energy Secretary Fernando Elizondo announced Monday that he was replacing him with Luis Ramirez Corzo, the former head of Pemex’s exploration unit.

President Vicente Fox’s office issued no comment on the move. Fox was on a state visit to Canada last week when the scandal broke and withheld judgment of the Pemex chief at the time, while saying Mexico was committed to transparency and a “settling of accounts.”

Analysts said Munoz Leos’ major misstep may have come last month when he signed off on a $700 million benefits package for oil workers as part of a new contract with their union. Even members of Fox’s Cabinet and Munoz Leos’ own board of directors denounced the package as excessive.

Oil workers’ benefits are a sensitive topic here. They were the basis of a 2002 scandal in which Munoz Leos’ predecessor at Pemex was alleged to have misappropriated $140 million of company funds disguised as worker loans and other benefits to finance the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s presidential candidate in 2000.

Revelations of Munoz Leos’ wife’s medical bills “sealed his fate,” Mexican Sen. Oscar Canton said Monday.

When Fox named Munoz Leos to head Pemex after the 2000 election, the president called the former Dupont executive just the man to spearhead an overhaul of the monopoly. The company’s payroll of 120,000 workers is notoriously bloated – twice that of Venezuela’s oil monopoly but with roughly the same oil output.

But Munoz Leos’ attempts to trim the fat, reduce the payroll and reorganize Pemex along corporate models largely failed. So did his drive to appoint outside businesspeople, instead of government officials, to the board of directors in an attempt to lessen its political focus.

Pemex oil production rose during Munoz Leos’ tenure to an average of 3.8 million barrels a day, up from 3.4 million barrels in 2000. Of that, about 1.6 million is exported to the United States.

George Baker, director of Houston-based Mexico Energy Intelligence consulting firm, said Munoz Leos wasn’t up to the political task of pushing reforms through an opposition-controlled Congress.

Munoz Leos’ major goal of attracting about $8 billion in foreign capital to finance natural gas exploration has been stalled by court challenges, noted David Shields, an independent Mexico City-based oil-industry analyst.

Opponents claim the contracts violate a constitutional ban on foreign exploitation of Mexican hydrocarbons.


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