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.
Across Latin America, the past year has provided reasons for hope that the struggle against grand corruption and impunity is finally making progress. Prosecutors have gone after corrupt elites in Guatemala and Honduras, while political leaders in Mexico and Chile have also been under pressure for their links to corruption scandals. And in Brazil, the investigations into the corruption scandal at the state-owned oil giant Petrobras have led to charges against around 80 people, including high-ranking political figures like the speaker of the Lower Chamber and former President Collor de Mello, and a former treasurer of the ruling Worker’s Party.
The investigation into the Petrobras scandal is being led by Brazil’s Federal Police and by Public Ministry Prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol, under the watchful eye of Judge Sergio Moro. And Judge Moro’s tenacious attitude to pursuing graft stands in sharp contrast to a judicial system that has traditionally been slow and ineffective, especially in corruption cases: out of ten salient scandals between 1990 and 2010, 841 people were implicated, but only 55 were convicted. Yet Judge Moro’s approach may actually be emblematic of a broader shift in the Brazilian judiciary, as corruption cases that are tried in courts have been on the increase over the past few years.
On the face of it, these convictions should be welcomed as a sign that justice is meted out against the corrupt and that the judiciary is playing its part in tackling grand corruption. Yet some critics have raised legitimate concerns about the arguably overzealous approach the authorities (not only the legislature and the executive, but also the judiciary) have taken in tackling corruption, in light of rule of law and human rights commitments. Continue reading →