For four months in 2012, like a national soap opera, Brazilians watched the biggest political corruption trial in the country’s history unfold inside Brasilia’s Supreme Federal Court. The complex plot, whose script was based on seven years of investigation, revealed a bribery scheme known as the mensalão—in which members of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party—PT) bribed members of Congress in exchange for political support between 2003 and 2005.
According to the investigation initiated in 2005 and carried out by the Public Ministry, the Federal Police and the Brazilian Court of Audit, the scheme involved about 100 million reais (about $50 million) in irregular payments to congressmen.
In December 2012, 37 people, including politicians, businessmen, lawyers, and bankers were put on trial, with 25 found guilty.
“The results of this trial shake the feeling of impunity that exists in Brazil,” explained Federal Court Minister Marco Aurélio de Mello.
Last week, the Supremo Tribunal Federal (Supreme Federal Court—STF) began the final stage of the trial, considering the last possible appeals by the defendants. The judges may adjust the sentences or even render new verdicts.
Impunity is so entrenched in Brazil that not even the federal police officer in charge of the investigations believed that those charged would be convicted. “The result was better than I expected,” said Luís Flávio Zampronha. “In Brazil you don’t see effective punishment—for example, imprisonment of people who have greater economic power.”
José Dirceu, the all-powerful former chief of staff to former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was sentenced to 10 years and 10 months in prison for masterminding the scheme. He was also fined $338,000. The former president of the PT, José Genoíno, and the former PT treasurer, Delúbio Soares, were found guilty of corruption alongside Dirceu.
The key player in the mensalão case, entrepreneur Marcos Valério, was sentenced to 40 years in jail and fined $1,319,800. The whistleblower, representative Roberto Jefferson, along with former federal representatives from four different political parties were charged with crimes and convicted.
The mensalão case has strong political implications. Those condemned have yet to be jailed because of appeals; during the recent protests, Brazilians demanded that the mensalão‘s defendants be sent to prison.
But this is not the first corruption scandal involving important Brazilian politicians in recent history. Until now, unethical or illegal behavior has yet to be an impediment to a long career in Brazilian politics.
In September 1992, Fernando Collor de Mello became the first president of Brazil to be removed from office for criminal liability after Congress voted to impeach him, with 441 votes in favor, 38 against and one abstention. Though found guilty by his peers, Collor was nonetheless acquitted by the Supreme Federal Court, which also judged the mensalão scandal. Today Collor is back in power as a senator for the Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro (Brazilian Labor Party—PTB)
The current president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros, regained power after being subject to a disciplinary inquiry by the Senate’s ethics committee. He stepped down as president of the Senate in October 2007, but was re-elected on February 1, 2013. In response, angry Brazilians started an online petition demanding Calheiro’s impeachment, which received more than 1.3 million signatures in its first month. Calheiros is also a target of anti-corruption protests.
Congressman Paulo Maluf is another example of corrupt politicians’ electoral successes in Brazil. He was charged in the United States for conspiracy and criminal possession of stolen funds and was found guilty of stealing millions from Brazilian taxpayers and hiding the money in a secret bank account in New Jersey. Since March 2012, Maluf has been wanted by Interpol for international money laundering. Nonetheless, at home, he is considered a respected and influential congressman, re-elected in 2011 for a second consecutive term.
Will political corruption keep Brazil from taking full advantage of its recent growth, or will the mensalão trial mark a turning point? A 2010 survey conducted by the Federação das Indústrias do Estado de São Paulo (Federation of Industries of São Paulo—FIESP) found that Brazil lost 69.1 billion reais per year (about $34 billion) because of corruption—or 2.3 percent of GDP.
Corruption is not only an obstacle for national economic growth, but it also erodes confidence in democracy itself and undermines the legitimacy of institutions in the society.
Yet the convictions of the emblematic mensalão case may indicate that Brazil is on track for better governance and a more efficient fight against impunity. Though harsh rulings against the powerful are unusual, many hope that the courts may start to take a harder line against corruption.
“When we talk about corruption and the existence of the mensalão, it is well to recall that Brazil—in spite of the dictatorship, in spite of its past—nonetheless has consistently been concerned about justice,” said Albert Fishlow, professor emeritus of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Success in the battle against corruption may determine whether Brazil completes its transformation from a large but poor country into one of the world’s economic superstars. Brazilians are daring to hope that the old ways of doing politics may finally be changing after decades of scandals.