Civil Non-Prosecution Agreements: A Promising New Tool for Advancing Brazil’s Anticorruption Agenda

In late 2019, the Brazilian Congress passed an “anti-crime package” which included, among other things, an amendment to the Administrative Improbity Act that authorized a new form of “civil non-prosecution agreement” (known by its Portuguese initials, ANPC). Under an ANPC, prosecutors can reach civil agreements with individuals who voluntarily disclose their corrupt acts, thus avoiding the usual judicial proceedings for determining penalties under the Improbity Law. (To be clear, ANPCs are used to resolve civil matters and impose administrative sanctions, rather than to resolve criminal cases.) More recent amendments to the Improbity Act have strengthened this mechanism by giving prosecutors greater discretion to reach settlements with individuals accused of improbity.

This reform is a major change to the traditional Brazilian approach to administrative sanctions, which historically bars the settlement of any case involving corruption or improbity. That said, Brazil has already expanded the use of settlement agreements in other contexts. For example, in the context of enforcing criminal laws against corporations, the 2014 Clean Company Act (CCA) authorized so-called “leniency agreements,” under which prosecutors may offer to lower penalties to companies that self-disclosure wrongdoing and cooperate with the investigation. The ANPC mechanism is similar but different in a couple of important respects. First, the ANPC applies to individuals rather than firms. Second, while the CCA authorizes leniency agreements only in cases where the company discloses information about other unlawful activities and thus helps the investigation, an ANPC may be issued as long as the individual agrees to reform her own conduct, even if she does not provide additional information that is useful in ongoing investigations. On the other hand, similarly to leniency agreements, the enforcement authorities need not seek judicial approval to resolve a case via ANPC, so long as the agreement is reached before the beginning of a judicial proceeding. (If a formal proceeding has already begun, then the judge would still need to sign off on the termination of that proceeding.)

Although ANPCs have yet to be used on large scale, this tool holds great promise for substantially improving Brazil’s effective enforcement of its anticorruption laws, for several reasons:

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The Brazilian Supreme Court’s Most Recent Ruling in the Lula Case Reveals the Court’s Own Bias

Back in 2017, a Brazilian court convicted former President Lula for corruption offenses in connection with a seaside apartment that Lula allegedly received as a bribe from a construction firm. In 2019, he was again found guilty of a corruption offense in a separate trial, this time for receiving bribes in the form of improvements to his country house. And he faced other corruption charges as well, including an indictment in which Odebrecht—a major construction firm and one of the most significant players in the Car Wash scandal— allegedly bribed Lula by agreeing to construct a headquarters for his foundation, the Lula Institute. The principal evidence for this latter accusation was acquired by prosecutors as part of a so-called “leniency agreement” with Odebrecht. In Brazil, leniency agreements are negotiated settlements, regulated by the Clean Company Act (CCA), in which companies voluntarily agree to confess unlawful conduct, pay penalties, and take other remedial action—including cooperating with prosecutors by providing evidence against other wrongdoers—and, in return, the companies have their sanctions and fines reduced (see, for example, here, here, and here). Such agreements have been critical to the success of the Car Wash Operation, and more generally to the effectiveness of Brazil’s fight against corruption.

But this past June, the Brazilian Supreme Court decided to nullify the evidence against Lula that had been collected under the Odebrecht leniency agreement (here). The Court’s ruling was not only legally flawed, but its reasoning, if accepted, threatens to undo dozens of prior corruption convictions and to create a cloud of uncertainty surrounding the validity of evidence obtained in leniency agreements. Such a ruling would needlessly undermine the ability of Brazilian prosecutors and courts to fight corruption in the future. Of course, the Court may not actually adhere to its legal reasoning in future cases—but that only underscores another problem: though the Brazilian Supreme Court has criticized lower court proceedings as biased against Lula, the Court’s own conduct, particularly in the most recent case, suggests an unacceptable bias in Lula’s favor.

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How to Reform Brazil’s Freedom of Information Regime

Ten years ago, Brazil enacted its Access to Information Law, which implements the constitutional guarantee of the right to information. Under the law, certain government data must be proactively disclosed, and other information must be provided upon the request of a member of the public, without the requester needing to show any special reason or justification. This law was supplemented with the enactment, last March, of the Digital Government Law, which streamlines the procedures for information requests, clarifies the government’s obligations to provide information in an open format that fulfills completeness, quality, and integrity requirements, and includes a non-exhaustive list of data that must be disclosed.

These laws, like other freedom of information laws, are intended to make government more responsive and accountable and to help fight corruption by making it easier for citizens, journalists, advocacy groups, and prosecutors to scrutinize and analyze government information for evidence of suspicious activity. But while the laws are very detailed about the rules for disclosing information upon request, the law’s provisions on proactive disclosure are not sufficiently specific or effective. And proactive disclosure is quite important. After all, while the right to request information is helpful to those who want to investigate a specific event, the proactive disclosure of data—for example, with respect to public expenditure, public procurement processes, and public contracts—may raise “red flags” that can spur more in-depth investigations.

There are three deficiencies in particular that should be remedied, so that Brazil’s freedom of information laws can be effective in ensuring the sorts of proactive information disclosure that can foster transparency and detect or deter corruption:

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