The politicians accused of involvement in a vast vote-buying scheme, along with their associates, will face trial at last
Jul 28th 2012 | SÃO PAULO | from the print edition
Against this backdrop, the trial, due to start on August 2nd, of 38 people accused of involvement in Brazil’s biggest corruption scandal of recent years is a rarity. The central accusation in the “mensalão” (big monthly stipend) case is that, after coming to power in 2003, the Workers’ Party (PT) diverted money from the advertising budgets and pension schemes of state-controlled firms to pay off legislators from allied parties, in return for their support. The allegations first surfaced in 2005, and the Supreme Court took on the case in 2007. Only now are the judges ready to try it.
The defendants face a range of charges including corruption, conspiracy, embezzlement, money-laundering and misusing public funds. Some admit they helped finance political parties off the books, which is illegal but common in Brazil. Others deny any role in the illicit payments.
Simply hearing the charges, evidence and statements will take months. The proceedings may be strung out further: some defendants’ lawyers will probably argue that trying their clients at the Supreme Court denies their constitutional right to appeal against any guilty verdict. (Only a few defendants held high office, but the Supreme Court will try them all together, since the charges are interconnected.)
Such legal manoeuvring could push many of the crimes past Brazil’s criminal-friendly statute of limitations. The few defendants still active within the PT may also want to delay the verdict until after municipal elections later this year, lest any convictions hurt the party in tight races.
The political fallout from the mensalão trial will probably be modest. The scandal shredded the PT’s claim to represent a new, cleaner politics, and Brazilians tell pollsters they disapprove of corruption. However, says Alberto Almeida of Instituto Análise, a political consultancy, they also assume that most politicians are dirty, and hence ignore even blatant graft when they vote. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the president when the payments occurred, was re-elected one year after the news broke. He was popular for improving the lives of the poor, not for crusading against corruption, and neither his friends nor his foes are likely to change their views based on the mensalão verdicts.
Lula’s chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, is even less likely to suffer political harm. None of the defendants in the case is close to her. And by sacking a string of ministers accused of corruption early in her term, she largely shielded herself from the threat of taint by association.
Instead, the main effect of the trial will be to chip away at Brazil’s culture of impunity for the powerful. Politicians regularly use their immunity to block inquiries involving their allies. Other wrongdoers remain free while their wily lawyers mount appeal after appeal. Antônio Pimenta Neves, a journalist convicted in 2006 of killing his ex-girlfriend in 2000, appealed all the way to the Supreme Court and was jailed only last year.
Abolishing such tactics demands ambitious reforms, which are unlikely in the near future. Without them, efforts to clean up government must work within the existing legal framework. That the mensalão affair has even come to trial is progress: jail for corrupt politicians may still be unlikely, but it is no longer unthinkable.
Meanwhile, greater transparency about public spending is making theft from the treasury harder. Strong regulatory bodies can close down government projects if they suspect budgets have been padded (though such safeguards can be bypassed in supposedly urgent situations, such as building stadiums for the 2014 World Cup). A new freedom-of-information law should make it harder for politicians to stuff the public payroll with cronies. “The good news”, says João Castro Neves of the Eurasia Group, a consultancy, “is that to be corrupt in Brazil you need to be more creative now than ten or 15 years ago.”