About Matthew Stephenson

Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

The Incredible Shrinking Scandal? Further Reflections on the Lava Jato Leaks

Last week, I published a lengthy commentary on the recent explosive reports from the Intercept regarding the Lava Jato operation in Brazil—reports that were based primarily on text messages provided by a source who apparently hacked (or otherwise gained unauthorized access to) the cell phone of Deltan Dallagnol, the lead prosecutor in the case. Because I am unable to read Portuguese, my discussion was based exclusively on the two substantive English-language reports, here and here. (There are more reports in the series, but so far they’ve not been translated into English; if and when they are, I may update my commentary.) The Intercept’s reports argued that these leaked text messages indicate: (1) that Judge Moro engaged in unethical and possibly illegal coordinating with and coaching of the prosecutors; (2) that the prosecutors recognized that their case against former President Lula was without solid legal or evidentiary foundation; and (3) that the prosecutors were motivated by political/ideological bias against Lula and his party, the PT.

In last week’s commentary, based on my preliminary analysis of the Intercept stories, and what I knew about the background context, I reached the following tentative conclusions:

  • First, I thought that the evidence of extensive text communications between the lead prosecutor and the presiding judge was (or at least should be) per se impermissible. I used very strong language in making this point, describing the fact that the two were in regular text contact as “the height of impropriety,” and a “shocking and inexcusable breach of judicial ethics.”
  • Second, though, I thought that the specific text exchanges reported by the Intercept—the ones that allegedly showed the coaching and collaboration—were largely innocuous, and didn’t seem to contain much problematic material over and above the fact of the communications themselves.
  • Third, I did not think that the text messages reported by the Intercept provided any reason to call into question the legal and evidentiary basis for Lula’s conviction. That conviction was and remains controversial, but the leaked text messages don’t show anything other than a prosecutor preparing appropriately for his case.
  • Fourth, I concluded that although texts exchanged among prosecutors in late September 2018 did indeed indicate that the prosecutors did not want the PT candidate to win the election, this didn’t necessarily show that the prosecutors were biased against the PT back in 2015-2016 (when the decision to investigate and prosecute Lula took place), nor was there any evidence that the prosecutors had taken any concrete action that could be ascribed to partisan bias.

Much to my surprise, last week’s post seems to have attracted a lot of attention, particularly in Brazil. As a result, I’ve had the opportunity to engage in substantive exchanges with multiple Brazilian experts from across the political spectrum, who hold a wide range of views on Lava Jato, Lula, and related matters. Some of these exchanges can be found in the comment section of last week’s post, which I highly recommend that interested readers check out (particularly those who might have read that post the day it came out, before the comment thread included over 60 separate entries); others have communicated with my privately. (To be clear, though, I have not communicated about the post, publicly or privately, with Mr. Dallagnol or anyone else named or discussed in the Intercept story.)

Based on these conversations, and on further reflection, my views on the Intercept’s reporting have shifted somewhat, mainly in the direction of thinking that this “scandal” is considerably less scandalous than the Intercept reported, or that I’d originally believed. Continue reading

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Paul Heywood

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, ICRN members Nils Köbis and Anna Schwickerath interview University of Nottingham Professor Paul Heywood about a range of topics, including the ways in which corruption subverts justice, how Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index helped put corruption on the global agenda, what academic researchers in this field have been doing too much (“admiring the problem”), and what new an dbetter questions scholars should be investigating in order to figure out how to combat corruption more effectively.

You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast episodes, at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Just How Damning Are the Lava Jato Leaks? Some Preliminary Reflections on The Intercept’s Bombshell Story

[Note: My thinking on the issues discussed in this post has evolved somewhat. For the update, see here.]

Two days ago, The Intercept published a collection of dramatic reports (here, here, and here) regarding the long-running Brazilian investigation into high-level corruption. That investigation, known as the Lava Jato (Car Wash) operation, which began as in inquiry into money laundering and associated offenses at the Brazilian state-owned oil company Petrobras, has led to the prosecutions and convictions of scores of powerful business leaders and senior politicians—including, most notably, the conviction and imprisonment of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (known as Lula). That conviction prevented Lula from competing in the presidential election in 2018, an election that was one by far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Anger on the Brazilian political left over Lula’s conviction, as well as the impeachment and removal of his successor Dilma Rouseff, has provoked accusations that the Lava Jato operation is really a right-wing conspiracy, and that the Lava Jato task force—the special team of prosecutors led by Deltan Dallagnol—and Sergio Moro, who presided over the most significant Lava Jato trials, including Lula’s, are politically biased enemies of the Left who are engineering a kind of coup d’etat through the judicial system. Many people, both in Brazil and internationally (me included), have pushed back against these accusations.

The Intercept’s recent reports assert that the critics were right all along. The evidence for this consists mainly of a huge quantity of data (texts, emails, and video and audio recordings) from a cell phone—almost certainly Mr. Dallagnol’s, based on the fact that all of the reported exchanges involve him. The Intercept has published a set of stories (some in English, some in Portuguese) based on a small portion of this material, mainly text message exchanges; the reporters emphasize that more is likely to emerge as they and other journalists review more of the leaked/hacked data. The big story here is that, according to the Intercept’s reporting, these text messages provide evidence of serious ethical breaches, particularly by then-Judge Moro, as well as evidence that the prosecutors knew their case against Lula was not strong, and, most damningly, that the task force prosecutors were motivated by partisan antipathy toward Lula and his party (the Worker’s Party, or PT), despite their claims to the contrary.

What to make of this? The news is clearly bad for the Lava Jato operation, the task force, and those of us who have supported the operation and defended it against various accusations and attacks. The question I want to address here is: Just how bad is it? My tentative answer is that, while the Intercept’s reports reveal some very upsetting, disappointing, and in some cases likely unethical conduct, the leaked text messages quoted in these first reports are not as damning as either the Intercept or other preliminary reports have made them appear. In this post (which will be longer than usual), I’ll try to work through the various allegations and associated texts and do my best to assess which revelations are most serious, which least so, and where we really need more evidence before making even a preliminary judgment. Continue reading

Guest Post: How a Social Movement Changed Spanish Attitudes Toward Corruption

Today’s guest post is from Elisa Elliott Alonso, who works at the OECD Water Governance Program:

The graph below chronicles the percentage of Spanish Citizens who named the economy (grey line) and fraud/corruption (blue line) as one of the three most important problems facing the country, during the period leading up to and following the economic downturn of 2008. Unsurprisingly, after the Spanish economy crashed, some 50% of the citizens of Spain noted that the economy was one of the most important issue affecting them, and this concern remained predominant for the next three years, though it started to decline a bit after 2011. As for corruption and fraud, prior to the crash concerns about these issues hardly registered, except for a brief spike in 1993, an uptick came in the immediate aftermath of a slew of highly publicized corruption scandals, and dissipated quickly) Even after the 2008 crash, concern about corruption rose only slightly increased from 2008 to 2012. That big change came in 2013, when the news broke that important members of the conservative PP party were allegedly involved in the Gürtel case, one of the most serious recent corruption scandals to rock Spain. More interesting is the fact that Corruption has remained a top concern of Spanish citizens ever since. There’s been a bit of tapering off since concern over corruption reached its peak in late 2014, but more than 20% of Spanish citizens still list corruption as one of the country’s most serious problems, roughly the same number of name the economy.

Why is this? Or, to put the question more generally, what kind of changes need to take place within a collective society’s ethos in order to bring about engaged citizen awareness and opposition to corrupt activities? Continue reading

Guest Post: Expert Interviews on Corruption Control in Latin America

Today’s guest post is from Columbia University Professor Paul Lagunes, who this year is also a Visiting Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy:

Elections in Latin America are freer and fairer than they used to be, and, with rare exceptions, political power in the region is no longer monopolized by a single individual, junta, or party. From Chile to Mexico, legal reforms have promoted higher levels of government transparency and citizen participation. But in spite of these improvements, the region continues to grapple with systemic corruption. Not only are individuals asked to pay bribes by lower-level government officials, but scandals such as Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) in Brazil, La Estafa Maestra (“The Master Fraud”) in Mexico, and La Línea (“The Line”) in Guatemala have revealed grand corruption at the most senior levels, making the fight against corruption a top priority for the region.

Prompted by these concerns, I contributed to organizing a conference at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy on corruption control in Latin America, which has already been featured (with links to the conference videos) on this blog. Some of the conference panelists stayed long enough that we were able to interview them about their important work. Tony Payan, my colleague at the Baker Institute and an expert on U.S.-Mexico border issues, agreed to conduct the interviews.

The videos of these interviews are now publicly available, and are well worth viewing for those interested in hearing a diverse range of perspectives on the corruption challenges currently facing Latin America. In this post I will provide links to the interviews as well as a brief summary of their content. (There’s also an online website, where you can find all the interviews, here.) Continue reading

Guest Post: An Austrian Political Corruption Scheme was Caught on Video–But Most Probably Aren’t

Today’s guest post is from Jennifer Kartner, an anticorruption researcher who recently received her Ph.D. in political science from Arizona State University:

On Friday, May 17, 2019, the German newspapers Der Spiegel and the Die Sueddeutsche Zeitung released an explosive video showing two key politicians of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), Heinz-Christian Strache and Johann Gudenus, scheming with a woman who claimed to be a wealthy Russian citizen. Their meeting took place in July 2017, a few months before the October 2017 Austrian parliamentary elections. In the video, Strache and Gudenus discuss how, with the help of the woman, they could ensure that the FPÖ wins the upcoming elections. The plan was that the Russian would buy 50% of the Austrian newspaper Die Kronen Zeitung—a newspaper reaching a third of all Austrian news consumers—before the elections, and then she would ensure that the already-populist newspaper would drum up more support for the FPÖ. (Mr. Strache estimates in the video that the newspaper takeover would help push the FPÖ’s expected vote share from 27 to 34 percent.) Once the FPÖ won the election, FPÖ elected officials would return the favor by helping the oligarch win contracts for public construction projects; all she had to do was to establish a construction company that could plausibly compete with the Austrian firm Strabag. The three meeting participants also talked about the possibility of privatizing the Austrian public broadcast station ORF, and Mr. Strache spoke of wanting to build a media landscape “just like Viktor Orbán built in Hungary.” But the deal never actually came together. Die Kronen Zeitung didn’t change owners, the FPÖ came in third in the parliamentary elections and ended up entering into a coalition government with the center-right ÖVP, and Strabag continues to win the majority of public construction contracts in Austria.

The political backlash in response to the publication of the video was swift and severe. An estimated 5,000 people came out to protest on the streets. A day after the publication, Mr. Strache resigned from his Vice-Chancellorship, as well as his other political and party positions, and issued a public apology, and a couple of days after that, all remaining FPÖ ministers in the government were fired or resigned in protest. While Austrian authorities are still debating whether they can charge Mr. Strache for any criminal activities, the public’s response shows that, regardless of the legal ramifications, ordinary citizens view this behavior as corrupt.

But perhaps one of the most disturbing things about this affair is that if the parties had gone through with their plan, and the secret video had never been leaked, neither the authorities nor the public would likely have ever had any reason to suspect a complex corruption scheme behind it. To see this, suppose for the moment that the scheme went ahead as planned. Would anyone have caught on? The answer is likely no: Continue reading

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Frederik Obermaier

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. This week’s episode features an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Frederik Obermaier (of the German publication Süddeutsche Zeitung), best known for his work on the Panama Papers investigations, and more recently for the story on the secret videos that exposed leading figures in one of Austria’s major political parties engaging in corrupt negotiations with someone they thought was the relative of a Russian oligarch. In the interview, Frederik and I discuss both of these high-profile stories, as well as broader questions regarding the role of investigative journalism in the fight against corruption and some of the challenges facing the independent media today.

You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast episodes, at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.