Brazilian Senate scandals: a guide

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SAO PAULO — It's the topic du jour in Brazil: Will a politician demonized by the press and accused of evading taxes, misusing government funds and a host of other ethics violations be allowed to keep his job as one of the most powerful lawmakers in the country?

Scandal surrounds 79-year-old senator Jose Sarney, the Senate president (and the country’s former president, and the unofficial head of one of its most powerful political parties) and the debate centers on whether he'll forced out of the position — or the Senate entirely.

Since February, a string of accusations of financial, political and legal shenanigans by senators and the Senate staff has captured the country’s attention and reminded Brazilians why they hold politicians in such low esteem. In recent weeks, the stakes have been raised: focus has shifted almost exclusively onto alleged misdeeds by Sarney, who was vehemently defended by his political ally, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. And it began to look like the outcome could deeply affect the 2010 elections, when Lula hopes to have Sarney’s help to elect his chosen successor, chief of staff Dilma Rousseff, to the presidency.

Here is a basic scandal guide for foreigners, with some help from the man best positioned to explain it to them: David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia who is a dual American-Brazilian citizen and the author of the weekly Brazil Focus newsletter.

How did it start?
There was no earthshattering, Watergate-level scandal that kicked things off. Instead, around February, sources in the Senate starting talking to journalists and feeding them a steady stream of juicy stories. One of the first good ones was the discovery that the Senate had paid millions of dollars of overtime to employees over the Christmas recess. But things really got going with the revelation that 181 Senate employees were pulling in six-figure salaries with the title of “director.” (By comparison, there are only 81 senators all those directors are there to serve.) And perhaps most damaging was the revelation that hundreds of “secret acts” not published in the Senate’s official record had been used, among other things, to hire relatives and otherwise unqualified workers for Senate positions.

Who is Sarney and how did he end up taking the rap?

He was first elected to federal office in 1958 and was president from 1985 to 1990, during the transition from military dictatorship to democratic rule; he has been a senator since 1990 and the president of the Senate since February. “Sarney is one of the last of the old-style politicians from the 1950s,” Fleischer said.

It was not until the end of May that he was directly accused of anything, in that case for receiving a housing stipend — about $2,000 a month — he did not qualify for since he already had a home in Brasilia. His relatives appeared in the secret acts, and his daughter, Roseana, who traded a Senate seat for the governorship of Maranhao state in April, allegedly had her “butler” on the Senate payroll (even after she became governor). Jose Sarney was accused of evading taxes with an offshore bank account, leaving a $2 million home off an official declaration of his assets, and misusing funds given to a non-profit organization he heads by the state oil company. Late last month, the newspaper Estado de Sao Paulo obtained recordings made during Federal Police wiretaps that appeared to show the senator, his son and his granddaughter discussing employment in the Senate for her boyfriend. The Sarneys were able to get a federal judge to order Estado de Sao Paulo not to cover that case anymore.

What role has the press played?

The constant drumbeat of revelations has been largely responsible for keeping up the pressure  where standard government mechanisms for ethics investigations would otherwise stall or fade away. “The press has very good investigative journalists,” Fleischer said. “They have scores of cases in reserve, each worse than the previous one, and will dribble these out for months.” Some of the mini-scandals that made Brazil’s most respected papers probably wouldn’t pass muster in the American press — obscure gotcha-type stories about ages-old real estate and business transactions — but they have kept the country’s eyes on the scandal (and off other matters, like legislation). In a July column, the ombudsman for Folha de Sao Paulo, one of the country's biggest papers, noted that "the legislature produces more than just crimes and gossip, its only two creations that seem to mobilize reporters of this newspaper."

To Fleischer, Sarney’s decision to seek out a friendly federal judge to issue an injunction on the Estado de Sao Paulo paper was “very violent political action, considered undemocratic in Brazil, something Hugo Chavez does all the time”

Why is Lula so involved?

To an American, the Brazilian president’s deep involvement, and (until recently) vehement defense of the vilified senate president would seem at best like meddling unbecoming a president, and worst like political suicide. “Sarney has a sufficient record in Brazil that he should not be treated as a common person,” Lula said in the senator’s defense. Many Brazilians also reacted strongly, from members of Lula’s Workers Party to the press. “What nonsense is that? My lord.” wrote Clovis Rossi, a columnist at Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper and one of the nation’s most respected political commentators. “It’s Lula’s version of ‘Do you know who I am?’ With a record or without a record, every citizen has the right to be treated in the same way.”

But “Lula had no choice,” Fleischer said. “He owes Sarney a lot of favors. He needs the PMDB [Sarney’s party, allied with Lula’s Workers’ Party] to govern.” Sarney’s PMDB has been part of every ruling coalition for the last two decades, making it, detractors argue, an ideology-free power broker. Lula, ineligible for re-election but devoting an inordinate amount of political capital to see his protegee and minister, Dilma Rousseff, succeed him, felt he should keep Sarney as an ally at all costs. That is, until last week, when it began to look like Sarney’s exit was inevitable, and Lula abruptly changed his tune: “It’s not my problem,” he said last Thursday. “I didn’t vote for Sarney to be president of the Senate. I didn’t even vote for him to be senator.” The abrupt and unsubtle change of direction was viewed as simple politics, and this week has begun to double back and help Sarney behind the scenes.

Will anyone be punished?

“Excluding Sarney, probably no senator will be punished,” said Fleischer, although he noted some of the directors may be expelled from their jobs and even tried in criminal cases, and some Senate staff named to positions via “secret acts” will end up unemployed.

In the middle of the scandal, something happened in New York that would have been unthinkable in Brazil: a City Council member, Miguel Martinez, resigned his post and pled guilty to corruption charges for skimming something like $100,000 from city coffers, all within a week. That simply doesn’t happen in Brazil. Resign your post: occasionally. Pay back the money you stole: rarely. Spend time in jail? Pretty much never. Name your past scandal, and you’ll find many of the protagonists back in public office. Even former president Fernando Collor de Mello, impeached and disgraced in 1992, avoided criminal conviction for corruption and rode out a (rare) eight-year suspension from public office. He is now, what else, a senator.