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By New Times
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By Stephen Lemons
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Last October was crunch time for the North American Free Trade Agreement. Ross Perot had been babbling about sucking sounds. No one knew whether NAFTA could pass Congress. A golden opportunity to cut political deals was at hand.
Deals were being struck not just in Washington, D.C., but in Mexico City, as well.
NAFTA opponents were winning the public relations war when Arizona Governor J. Fife Symington III boarded America West Airlines Flight 32 on the morning of October 20 for a nonstop flight to Mexico City. Officially, Symington was on a political good will mission meant to underscore his fervent support for NAFTA to Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
"We are all making calls across the USA to Congressmen to push hard for approval, and I am still very optimistic and pray that Congress does the right thing," Symington later wrote to Salinas.
But Symington was not just seeking Salinas' assistance on opening the Mexican market for Arizona business. Symington and Arizona's top trade representative to Mexico, Jorge Z. Mej¡a, also were helping an Oregon businessman with no apparent ties to Arizona--no ties, that is, other than a friendship with the governor.
Symington and Mej¡a used the meeting with Salinas and a later conference with the Mexican energy secretary to catapult the governor's friend, J. Bradford Bishop, to the pinnacle of Mexican politics, placing him on an inside track for lucrative contracts from the Mexican national electric utility.
"My friend, Brad Bishop of Carson Energy, was . . . deeply gratified to have met you," Symington wrote in an October 29 letter to Salinas. "As you may know, Mr. Bishop is keenly interested in infrastructure investment in Mexico."
Victoria Guerra, an executive secretary in Arizona's Mexico City trade office, knew little about Bishop or his trip. While she was opening office mail, though, Guerra ran across a $3,000-plus check from Bishop to her boss, Mej¡a.
Guerra knew that procurement laws strictly prohibit state officials such as Mej¡a from profiting through their public positions.
So she reported the payment to her superiors.
It took them less than a month to take action.
They forced her to resign.
@body:No one had more experience running the Mexico City trade office than Guerra. The executive secretary, who has a master's degree in English from Ohio's Oberlin College and also speaks German and Spanish fluently, was hired four months after the office opened in March 1992. She became the de facto director in March 1993 after the sudden death of former director David Clay.
For the next six months, Guerra ran the day-to-day operations of the office and represented Arizona at official functions. Commerce officials were so pleased with her performance that she was the guest of honor at an April 1993 dinner attended by former Commerce Department director and Symington confidant Jim Marsh and Deputy Commerce Director David Guthrie.
Among other duties, she kept track of office expenses and filed a monthly accounting ledger with Commerce officials in Phoenix. Guerra began to detect problems with Mej¡a's expense reports soon after he was appointed to the job in August of last year. Among those problems were Mej¡a's failure to pay routine office expenses and salaries, sources familiar with the Mexico City operation say. Guerra also questioned contracts between the trade office and firms that have ties to members of Mej¡a's family.
Guerra met with New Times in Mexico City, but declined to be quoted for this story. State documents obtained through the public records law, however, detail many of the events leading to her forced resignation.
"Within a month I began to notice that the office was being managed in a manner very differently from the way it had been under Mr. Clay," Guerra wrote in a January 24 letter to William Bell, assistant director for personnel services.
"The office funds, expenditures and expense reports to Arizona were particularly curious."
The accounting irregularities ballooned into a larger potential problem for Mej¡a in late October. Mej¡a was in Arizona on a 14-day get-acquainted visit when Guerra discovered Bishop's $3,306 check while routinely opening the office mail.
After consulting with friends in the Commerce Department in Phoenix, Guerra decided to forward a copy of the check to one of her superiors, International Trade Director Dorothy Bigg.
"When Mrs. D. Bigg received the fax of this document and asked Mr. Mej¡a (who at the time was in Arizona) for an explanation, he found a very simple excuse for it and promised to Mrs. Bigg that he would return it to the sender and ask him to rewrite it in the name of the Mexican company which had done the translation," Guerra wrote in her letter to Bell.
But according to Guerra's letter, Mej¡a didn't tell Bigg one crucial fact about the Mexican company, which, Mej¡a had said, performed translation services for Bishop. Mej¡a, Guerra charges, failed to mention that the company was owned by his sister-in-law.
(Bigg, Mej¡a, Guthrie and other Commerce Department officials declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Guerra's fate was sealed upon Mej¡a's return to Mexico City. The 47-year-old tennis and computer buff was furious with Guerra for sending Bishop's check to Phoenix.