Brazil’s 1992 Administrative Improbity Law, which authorized severe sanctions on government agents who commit “acts against the public administration,” was the first Brazilian statute specifically targeted at government corruption. Last year, Brazil adopted extensive amendments to this law, many of which were controversial. In a recent post, I criticized the amendment that reduced the number of institutions responsible for enforcing the Improbity Law. But other controversial amendments to the law are, in my view, positive developments. In particular, I want to defend two other amendments that critics have asserted weaken the law:
- First, under the original version of the Improbity Law, a public official could be sanctioned for negligent behavior that caused damage to the public treasury. Under the amended version of the law, only intentional acts can be considered administrative improbity punishable under this statute.
- Second, the original version of the law listed ten forms of administrative misconduct that would constitute “violations of the principles of public administration,” but, importantly, that list was not exclusive. Rather, the listed forms of misconduct were presented only as examples. This meant that law enforcers could, and often did, bring an action under the Improbity Law for conduct that, in the enforcer’s view, violated a “principle of public administration,” such as morality and equity, even if the particular form of alleged improbity was not included as one of the specifically listed forms of misconduct in the statute. The amended law constrains enforcement discretion by establishing a well-defined and restricted list of acts that qualify as violations of the principles of public administration.
Critics, including many anticorruption advocates, assert that these changes unduly narrow the scope of the law, thereby undermining one of Brazil’s most important anticorruption instruments. These concerns, while understandable, are misplaced: Both of the above amendments improve the law by ensuring that it is administered fairly and used to target serious corrupt acts, rather than being wielded as a political weapon to punish partisan adversaries for good-faith mistakes.