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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Guest Post: What Should Brazil’s Next President Do To Get the Anticorruption Agenda Back on Track?

Today’s guest post is from Marcelo Malheiros Cerqueira, a Brazilian federal prosecutor and a member of the GAECO/MPF (Special Action Group for Combating Organized Crime) in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil.

Since 2019, Brazil´s anticorruption efforts have been disrupted and derailed. Institutions in charge of fighting corruption are being constantly weakened or attacked. Tools that have been central to Brazilian prosecutors’ anticorruption investigations, such as plea bargains and leniency agreements, are being dismantled by new legislation, and the Congress has not moved forward on proposals that would enhance the fight against corruption (see here and here). The judiciary, mainly by its Supreme Court, has have nullified convictions, or sometimes entire investigations, in major corruption cases, and in so doing has weakened the anticorruption system (see some examples herehere and also here). And despite the fact that anticorruption was a central theme of the 2018 presidential campaign, the government has been questioned for lending its support to pushback against the anticorruption agenda and politicizing formerly non-partisan bodies like the Federal Police.

While the backlash against Brazil’s anticorruption efforts is a three-branch problem, Brazilian voters have an opportunity to address at least one aspect of the problem next year, when they go to the polls to select Brazil’s next president.

This brings us to the question: What should the next Brazilian president do, whoever he or she may be? To put this question another way, when voters and civil society organizations are assessing the future presidential candidates’ anticorruption platforms, what sorts of policies and proposals should they look for? While the issue is obviously quite complicated, here are four initial proposals, from the simplest to the most difficult to implement:

  • First, the president needs to demonstrate a commitment to integrity as a core values of the administration—and must do so not simply through rhetoric, but by taking practical action such as refusing to appoint individuals implicated in corruption cases to senior government positions and pushing for the adoption of integrity measures at lower levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy. Doing so will not only help ensure integrity in the Federal government, but will also set a positive example for state governors and mayors, and help foster a culture of integrity more broadly in the society.
  • Second, the president should respect and empower the institutions of the anticorruption system, avoiding any risk of their political capture. This requires that the appointment of directors for bodies such as the Financial Activity Control Council (COAF), the Federal Police, and the Comptroller General of the Union (CGU) be guided by non-partisan technical criteria, instead of making appointments on the basis of political alignment or personal relationships. Likewise, the next president should restore the longstanding tradition of choosing the Prosecutor General of the Republic (PGR) from the list of three candidates previously voted by the members of the Federal Prosecution Office. This model is ideal for guaranteeing the autonomy of the PGR, which, in turn, is essential for the criminal investigation and prosecution of higher-ranking political agents (including the president) for possible acts of corruption.
  • Third, the president must commit to working to enact legislative and constitutional reforms that decrease impunity for acts of corruption, such as the proposed constitutional amendments to allow incarceration of defendants after the first affirmation of a conviction in an appeal´s court (rather than allowing convicted defendants to remain at liberty until all possible appeals are exhausted) and end to the “privileged forum” rule that says high-level public officials can only be tried in higher courts. On the other hand, the president must also oppose—and if necessary veto—any attempt by the Congress to inhibit the action of anticorruption bodies or to weaken existing anticorruption tools (as unfortunately occurred recently with respect to amendments to Brazil’s Administrative Misconduct Act).
  • Fourth, the most difficult anticorruption challenge facing Brazil’s next president will be reforming the Brazilian electoral system, which is a root cause of the grand corruption that recent investigations have exposed. Any attempt to change the electoral system will face strong opposition by influential politicians, whose power relies in rules that ensure expensive campaigns and unequal distribution of the public electoral fund. Thus, the president must spearhead the attempt to reform the political system—but should probably only do so when he or she has sufficient high public approval, probably after the implementation of the other three proposals mentioned above.

This short list obviously does not encompass all the possible measures that can be taken by the next president against corruption. It would be helpful to know what GAB readers think about these suggestions, as well as what other proposals they might suggest.

One last word. Political leaders can do a lot to help the anticorruption agenda. But that does not mean that societies depend exclusively on them. Good education, transparency, popular control, high standards of morality and many other factors are crucial to the success of the fight against corruption. Therefore, although the central question posed here brings the opportunity to debate the role of the president, civil society also needs to take care of its role.

Some Things Are More Important Than Corruption (Brazilian Elections Edition)

In the anticorruption community, it is fairly common to puzzle over—and bemoan—the fact that voters in many democracies seem to support candidates that are known or reputed to be corrupt. “Why,” we often ask, “do voters often elect or re-elect corrupt politicians, despite the fact that voters claim to despise corruption?” One of the common answers that we give to this question (an answer supported by some empirical research) is that even though voters dislike corruption, they care more about other things, and are often willing to overlook serious allegations of impropriety if a candidate or party is attractive for other reasons. We often make this observation ruefully, sometimes accompanied with the explicit or implicit wish that voters would make anticorruption a higher priority when casting their votes.

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