Brazil’s Supreme Court May Have Ended the Lava Jato Operation as We Know It

This past March, Brazil’s Supreme Court (the Supremo Tribunal Federal, or STF) issued an opinion that is considered one of the most significant defeats yet to the anticorruption effort known as the Car Wash (or Lava Jato) operation (see here and here). The case involved allegations that the former mayor of Rio de Janeiro and his campaign manager received roughly USD 4 million from the construction firm Odebrecht that was used for a campaign slush fund, in exchange for business advantages in connection with certain construction projects. The particular legal claim on which the defendants prevailed concerned not a substantive issue, but rather a jurisdictional question: whether the case was brought in the wrong court. In Brazil, the ordinary federal courts adjudicate ordinary federal crimes, but there are also special electoral courts that handle violations—including criminal violations—of Brazil’s Electoral Code. The use of slush funds, though not expressly listed as one of the actions criminalized under the Electoral Code, could be prosecuted under the Electoral Code’s prohibition on false statements, because doing what the former mayor allegedly did would entail failure to report funds used in an election campaign. Such charges would ordinarily be heard by the specialized electoral courts. But taking illegal contributions to a campaign slush fund in exchange for political favors could also be charged as bribery (or associated crimes like money laundering) under Brazil’s Criminal Code—crimes that would typically be adjudicated by the regular federal courts. Given that the same wrongful transaction might entail violations of both the Electoral Code and the Criminal Code, which court (or courts) should hear the case?

This is the question that the STF had to resolve, and it had, roughly speaking, three options. First, the STF could have ruled that the whole case (both the electoral crimes and the ordinary crimes) should be heard by an ordinary court. The second option would be to require that the special electoral court adjudicate the whole criminal case, including the ordinary criminal charges. Third, the STF could have held that the case should be split, with an electoral court dealing with the alleged violations of the Electoral Code and an ordinary court handling all the other charges. In a 6-5 decision, the STF went with the second option, holding that whenever an ordinary crime is committed in connection with an electoral crime, the whole criminal case must be decided by an electoral court.

This is hugely significant for the Lava Jato operation, because many of the cases the operation has uncovered involve potential violations of the Electoral Code, in the form of illegal or undisclosed campaign contributions made in exchange for political favors. (The newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo estimates  that almost 30% of Lava Jato’s rulings touch discussions of illegal campaign finance.) But although some cases related to Lava Jato have gone to the electoral courts, most of the cases, including all of the main criminal cases, have been prosecuted in the ordinary courts. Federal prosecutors, especially the Lava Jato task force, are very concerned about the STF’s decision and have criticized it as a significant blow to Brazil’s anticorruption efforts.

They are right to be worried. Although some have maintained that there is no serious cause for concern, in fact the STF’s decision poses a very serious problem, for several reasons.

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Electoral Systems and Corruption: Proportional Representation in Brazil

The Petrobras scandal currently engulfing Brazil is unprecedented in its scale and scope. Ironically, when the party of President Dilma Rousseff, the Workers’ Party (PT), initially became a major political player in 1989, it was seen as a clean, ethical alternative after President Collor de Mello stepped down from office amidst corruption allegations. Yet in the years following its rise to power, the PT has been dogged by corruption allegations, even before the explosion of the Petrobras investigations. During the presidency of Ms. Rousseff’s predecessor, Lula Inácio da Silva, prosecutors unearthed a major scheme, known as the Mensalão scandal, under which public funds were being used to pay members of Congress in exchange for their support of the PT government in crucial votes. At the end of the inquiry, 25 politicians and businessmen were convicted. Several other smaller corruption schemes (including Caixa Dois, Bingos, Sanguessugas, and Dossier) also implicated high-ranking members of the PT during Mr. da Silva’s tenure.

Despite this clear evidence of corruption within the PT ranks, the PT has been able to maintain its relative dominance in Brazilian politics, with three successive victories in presidential elections following Mr. da Silva’s initial rise to power, including Ms. Rousseff’s re-election in 2014, six months after the launch of the Petrobras investigations. This raises yet again a question that scholars and commentators have asked over and over again: Why do voters keep re-electing corrupt politicians? Democracy is supposed to enable voters to hold their government accountable, and most voters claim to dislike corruption and to value integrity in government. So why do parties like the PT keep winning elections? While there are many possible explanations (maybe, for example, voters don’t really care as much about corruption as they claim), part of the explanation in certain countries may have to do with the particularities of the electoral system.

Brazil has a hybrid electoral system: the President is elected in a two-round majority run-off system, elections for the Senate are based on plurality votes within states, and elections to the Chamber of Deputies are based on open-list proportional representation. An examination of this system suggests that it is particularly inimical to holding corrupt politicians accountable, and may have in fact contributed to the seemingly intractable problem of corruption in Brazilian politics. Three problems in particular stand out:

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Why Rational Anticorruption Voters Might Not Support the Anticorruption Candidate

As some readers of this blog are likely aware, Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout is challenging the Andrew Cuomo, New York’s incumbent governor, in the state’s Democratic primary, to be held tomorrow. One of her main campaign themes is corruption: Her campaign emphasizes corruption in the Cuomo administration both in the narrow sense of raising concerns about unethical and possibly unlawful conduct in New York state government (as well as Governor Cuomo’s controversial decision to disband the Moreland Commission, which had been looking into these issues), and also “corruption” in the broader sense of excessive influence of wealthy interests and the distorting effect this has on politics. Teachout herself concedes that if she wins it would be the “upset of the century,” and indeed most political prognosticators give her virtually no chance of winning. Why not?

It’s true, of course, that Teachout has no prior experience in electoral politics and is up against a savvy and well-funded incumbent. But there’s a bigger problem for her — and for any insurgent anticorruption candidate or party — that derives from the nature of the U.S. electoral system that Nobel Laureate Roger Myerson identified over two decades ago in a technical game theory paper on how electoral institutions affect the success or failure of insurgent anticorruption candidates. Although Myerson’s analysis does not correspond perfectly to the New York primary (for reasons I will explain in a moment), it is nonetheless enlightening–not only for the challenges faced by Teachout, but for anticorruption parties more generally. Continue reading