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Mexican president defends utility head against charges of corruption

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico’s president on Wednesday expressed support for the embattled head of the national electricity company CFE, blaming political opponents for accusations that Manuel Bartlett hid business relationships and conflicts of interest.

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“It’s evident he’s facing a campaign against him by adversaries,” President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told his regular news conference. “I am sure he will clarify all of this.”

Lopez Obrador, a veteran leftist who took office in December, has vowed to root out entrenched corruption in Latin America’s second-biggest economy, saying his administration will be a model for proper governance.

Mexican journalists Areli Quintero and Carlos Loret de Mola reported on Tuesday that Bartlett, a veteran politician with a controversial past, did not disclose his relationship with 12 Mexican companies - including one that offers electricity services and another that obtained a contract under the current government.

The CFE declined to comment.

The journalists also reported last month that Bartlett had amassed a vast real estate portfolio worth far more than the assets reported in his public declaration.

The Public Administration Ministry opened an investigation into Bartlett’s assets following the report, which Bartlett has said is false.

Lopez Obrador, who tapped Bartlett for his current role and also defended the official last month, lashed out at reporters who have dug into topics such as Bartlett’s business ties.

“I don’t trust the people who do these investigations because they’re not honest. There’s always an economic or political interest,” he said.

Consulting firm Teneo said Lopez Obrador’s response was a worrisome sign of how the government’s inquiry into Bartlett will proceed.

“The use of rhetoric designed to shed doubt on the veracity of claims made against Bartlett is not a promising signal,” Teneo said in a report.

Bartlett is well known in Mexico for announcing on election day in 1988, when he served as interior minister under the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), that the vote-tabulating computers had crashed as the main opposition candidate was in the lead.

When the computers came back online, the PRI’s candidate had won, drawing accusations of fraud from critics.

Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon, additional reporting by Miguel Angel Lopez; Editing by Lisa Shumaker