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UNM backtracks on naming center for Mexican official

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

University of New Mexico regents voted in April to name the university’s newest water research center after a former member of the Mexican government who had earlier resigned in a public corruption scandal. The regents backtracked on the naming decision last month, however.

The former official, David Korenfeld, is perhaps best known as the former head of Mexico’s National Water Commission, or Conagua. He resigned in April 2015, days after photos circulated on social media showing him and his family using one of the commission’s helicopters for personal travel.

As head of Conagua, Korenfeld oversaw the transfer of millions of dollars in contracts to the nonprofit that funded the UNM center, according to a report in the Mexican press.

Korenfeld also serves on the board of the nonprofit organization, known as ANEAS de Mexico, which gave UNM $450,000 to fund the research center in his name. But he later asked the university for his name to be removed, saying it would be inappropriate for the center to be named for a living person.

David Korenfeld, right, was in charge of of Mexico’s National Water Commission when he visited an exploratory well with Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera in 2013. (Dario Lopez-Mills/Associated Press)

David Korenfeld, right, was in charge of of Mexico’s National Water Commission when he visited an exploratory well with Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera in 2013. (Dario Lopez-Mills/Associated Press)

Although UNM’s vice president for research and compliance was aware of the helicopter scandal, he did not inform the regents, and he recommended that they name the center after Korenfeld. They voted to do so unanimously at a meeting in early April.

Influential Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui and a group called Mexicans Against Impunity and Corruption published a joint report May 26 on UNM’s plan to name the research center after Korenfeld – prompting hundreds of comments in Spanish expressing anger and disbelief.

That same day, UNM inked a new agreement with ANEAS, officially changing the name from “Centro David Korenfeld in Water Governance Studies” to the “Center in Water Governance Studies.” UNM dedicated the center, which is housed in the Latin American Institute for Public Policy and Leadership, that day.

The joint report published by Aristegui also said ANEAS de Mexico, which stands for National Association of Water and Sanitation Utilities of Mexico, benefited from $2 million in Conagua contracts while Korenfeld headed the commission and four months after his resignation benefited from another $4 million in commission contracts.

Korenfeld served on the board of ANEAS from 2007 to 2011 and rejoined the board shortly after his resignation from Conagua, according to the joint report. ANEAS initially requested the name change in a letter dated May 4, though the administrator who oversaw the name didn’t receive it until the week of May 23.

Helicopter rides

The chain of events is a window into evolving views in Mexican society.

In a nation that has been rife with corruption, Mexicans in recent years have taken elites to task through public shaming campaigns. Members of the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto have been prime targets.

In April 2015, Mexican news media reported that Korenfeld and his family were headed for Mexico City’s airport in the Conagua helicopter to catch a flight for a spring break trip to the Vail ski resort in Colorado. Korenfeld apologized on Twitter for using the agency helicopter, calling it an “inexcusable error.”

A federal anti-corruption agency fined him about 649,000 pesos, or roughly $42,500.

News of the scandal was picked up by English-language newswire services including Reuters and The Associated Press.

“Before, you could be corrupt and use public funds, but now anyone can snap a photo of you using the Conagua helicopter,” said Raul Pacheco-Vega, a professor of water governance and public policy at the Center for Research and Teaching Economics in Mexico City. “Mexican society is now not happy at all to just let these things slip through.”

Korenfeld could not be reached by phone at the Mexico City office of ANEAS or via social media.

Earlier this year, press coverage of the helicopter controversy continued with the Mexico City daily newspaper El Universal reporting Korenfeld used the agency helicopter “like Uber,” citing official documents that show he caught rides on the helicopter at least 15 times for personal use.

Agreement changed

UNM had executed an agreement with ANEAS de México in January in which the nonprofit agreed to donate $450,000 to found the “Centro David Korenfeld in Water Governance Studies” to “support … professional and academic residencies, conferences, international seminars or other research activities,” according to a UNM Foundation gift agreement. But a UNM news release issued last week did not mention the name originally proposed, only announcing the creation of the “Water Governance Center focusing in Latin America.”

Carlos Rey Romero, UNM’s associate vice president for research and compliance, earlier recommended to the Board of Regents that the center be named after Korenfeld – ANEAS’ original proposal, according to documents from recent meetings of regents.

Rey Romero said he researched Korenfeld and found information about the helicopter incident. But he said he didn’t think it was “problematic,” given that Korenfeld had apologized, and he didn’t mention it to regents.

“It seemed like he tried to make amends,” Rey Romero said.

But sometime in April or May, Korenfeld found out his name was attached to the center and asked for it to be removed, Rey Romero said.

“He didn’t feel it was so appropriate,” Rey Romero said.

A committee of the regents voted to approve the name of the center in April, and the full board voted unanimously to approve the name later that month.

None of the regents’ packet material contained information about the helicopter incident or Korenfeld’s resignation from Conagua. And regent Marron Lee said she didn’t know anything about the helicopter incident before voting to approve the name.

ANEAS confirmed Korenfeld’s board membership. He also serves as chairman of the international hydrological program of UNESCO and on the board of governors of the World Water Council.

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