TRADE SECRETS

ARIZONA'S TRADE REPRESENTATIVE TO MEXICO WAS CUTTING DEALS WITH HIS FRIENDS AND FAMILY. A SECRETARY REPORTED THE PROBLEM--AND PROMPTLY GOT CANNED.

Mej¡a should have known it would be improper to contract with Bishop. Four months earlier, during a job interview, Mej¡a told Bigg, the state's international trade director, that he had thoroughly read the state's procurement rules and understood the conflict-of-interest provisions--provisions that preclude him from receiving money from businessmen seeking help from the Mexico City trade office.

So far, Mej¡a has escaped serious repercussions from the Bishop check.
Commerce officials clearly are concerned about the possibility of scandal in one of their three international trade offices, which are under scrutiny this year by the legislature.

"We can't afford a failure down there," Bigg wrote in a December memo that specifically referred to the Mexico City operation.

A $300,000 appropriation for the Mexico City trade office is up for renewal during this legislative session. Some state legislators want Arizona businesses to contribute to the cost of running the Mexico office, as well as those in Taiwan and Japan--a move strongly opposed by Commerce.

With damage control becoming the overriding factor, the person who blew the whistle on Bishop's check to Mej¡a became expendable. But removing Guerra from the state payroll cannot make her allegations disappear. And those allegations involve a lot more than one $3,000-plus check.

@rule:
@body:Guerra is a slim, gracious woman with years of experience and extensive contacts in Mexico City's diplomatic and business community. She wasn't about to leave her job at the trade office without a fight. But she also knew there were two ways to conduct the battle--in public or through proper government channels. She chose the latter, and continues to decline on-the-record interviews.

In mid-January, Guerra sent a five-page letter to Bigg outlining a dozen "irregularities" in Mej¡a's direction of the office. Many of them involve trivial matters, such as the hiring of an office maid and purchase of new stationery. But several are more serious. (A copy of the January 17 letter made its way to New Times from a source other than Guerra.)

In addition to the Bishop check, Guerra claimed, Mej¡a had commissioned two ethically questionable contracts, one involving a telemarketing campaign operated by his niece, and the other the purchase of $21,000 worth of computer equipment.

Commerce Department records reveal that Bigg placed little credence in Guerra's complaints.

"While my initial inclination is to totally disregard her assertions as typical of a disgruntled employee who has been terminated, perhaps you would clarify this, just to be sure we have all bases covered should she spread these rumors further," Bigg wrote in a January 24 memorandum to Mej¡a.

Mej¡a covered those bases a week later in a three-page note to Bigg, offering a series of explanations of Guerra's allegations. Bigg accepted Mej¡a's statements as gospel.

"After much discussion and thorough investigation of your allegations," Bigg wrote in a February 25 letter to Guerra, "we have come to the conclusion that Jorge [Mej¡a] has done nothing unethical or illegal."
It is clear that investigation was not, in fact, very thorough.
@rule:

@body:After obtaining copies of the bids Mej¡a said he had received from three computer retailers, New Times visited those same Mexico City firms and obtained price quotes for some of the same equipment purchased by the state last October.

The first stop was Computiendas Denki, the company that won the $21,118.90 trade-office contract, where Ricardo Targa said he was Computiendas Denki's supplier and was authorized to sell equipment to individuals for the same price as Computiendas Denki.

New Times provided Targa with a list of computer equipment that included items purchased four months earlier by Mej¡a for the state trade office.

Targa said he would sell the equipment for $2,557, about half the price that the state had paid Computiendas Denki last October.

The next stop was AR-TEK, a computer retailer that submitted the highest of three bids for the contract.

AR-TEK's manager, Carlos Soto Rodriguez, produced an estimate for the equipment that was slightly higher than the price submitted to Mej¡a several months earlier. In responding to a request for a price quotation, however, Rodriguez unknowingly provided other important information.

The fine print on his business card contained two addresses. One was for his own store. The other was the address for none other than Computiendas Denki, the "low" bidder to provide Mej¡a with computer equipment.

The third firm that had submitted a "bid" to provide Mej¡a's office with computers was Excelencia en Sistemas Computacionales, which doesn't appear in the Mexico City phone book.

A two-story residential building stands at the site listed as the address for Excelencia. The building had no signs indicating it was a business. An elderly woman who came to the door said she did not know Jose Collepardo, the person submitting Excelencia's bid for the state contract.

"There is no Jose Collepardo here," she said.
The woman said her address matched the one given for Excelencia. But there was no Collepardo and there were no computers for sale, she said.

In short, two of the bids for the computer equipment supplied to Mej¡a's office came from companies that share the same address. The third bid was submitted by a company that doesn't appear to exist.

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