The Resignation of Brazilian Justice Minister Sérgio Moro: Reflections on How Key Players Should Handle This Political Crisis

If a global pandemic and a mounting economic crisis weren’t enough, Brazil now faces a political crisis. Last Friday (April 24), Sérgio Moro, the former judge in the Car Wash anticorruption operation who had become Minister of Justice in the administration of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, resigned his ministerial post and accused President Bolsonaro of multiple improprieties having to do with apparent interference with ongoing federal criminal investigations. In particular, Moro stated that Bolsonaro fired the head of the Federal Police, Maurício Valexio, without Moro’s necessary approval (and, indeed, had forged Moro’s electronic signature on the dismissal papers), because—according to Moro—Bolsonaro “was concerned about investigations underway in the Federal Supreme Court,” which many interpreted as an allusion to ongoing investigations into corruption allegations against President Bolsonaro’s sons. This was not the first time President Bolsonaro had meddled in the  Ministry of Justice—notwithstanding his promise that Moro would have full autonomy—but the firing of Valexio seems to have been the final straw for Moro. In his resignation speech, Moro emphasized his reluctance to resign in the midst of a public health crisis, but declared that Bolsonaro’s actions were beyond the pale. “I could not,” Moro explained, “set aside my commitment to the rule of law.”

It’s hard to exaggerate the significance of Moro’s resignation for Brazilian politics, and for the future of Brazil’s fight against systemic corruption. The resignation of a senior minister on grounds of alleged presidential interference in an investigation would be an enormous scandal under any circumstances, but to appreciate the significance of Moro’s resignation from the Bolsonaro government, one must know a bit more about the larger context. Moro became a nationally prominent figure due to his role in presiding over some of the most high-profile investigations and trials in the Car Wash anticorruption investigation, including the trial of former President Lula of the left-wing Worker’s Party (the PT); the Car Wash investigation also led to the impeachment and removal of Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, though Judge Moro was not directly involved in that political process. Lula’s conviction meant that he was disqualified from running in the 2019 presidential election, which many observers believe he would have won. Thus, while Judge Moro was heralded as a hero by many Brazilian’s for his role in the Car Wash Operation, others—especially those affiliated with the PT—accused him of political bias against the left.

Lula’s disqualification, and the taint of corruption that attached to the PT due to the Car Wash Operation, created a window of opportunity for Jair Bolsonaro in the 2019 presidential election. Bolsonaro, a far-right politician who had long been considered a marginal figure at best, ran on an anticorruption platform, claiming that only he could clean up the corrupt Brazilian political system. This appeal worked: Many Brazilian voters who did not share Bolsonaro’s radical right-wing ideology nevertheless concluded that they couldn’t stomach another presidency with the “corrupt” PT. After Bolsonaro won the election, he appointed Moro to be his Minister of Justice—a move that many saw as intended to bolster Bolsonaro’s claims to be committed to ushering in a new era of anticorruption reform in Brazil. Bolsonaro made explicit and extravagant promises that Moro—an anticorruption hero in the eyes of most Brazilians, including many skeptical of Bolsonaro himself—would have a free hand to run his Ministry without presidential interference. But Moro’s acceptance of a senior position in the Bolsonaro administration drew criticism from the Brazilian left, a line of criticism that only intensified after a series of media stories last summer that suggested, based on leaked text messages, that while Moro was the presiding Judge in the Car Wash cases he may have inappropriately coordinated with prosecutors or exhibited bias against Lula. While some disputed this interpretation of the text messages, they fed into the narrative that Moro was partisan and Car Wash was a witch hunt. Even some of Moro’s supporters expressed concern about the content of the leaks, and about his acceptance of a position in the Bolsonaro government.

Moro’s resignation is a shocking new twist to this ongoing drama. Until recently, he was condemned by the far-left as Lula’s jailer; now he’s condemned by the far-right as a traitor. With some Brazilians, he’s still a popular anticorruption standard-bearer. It’s understandable that there’s considerable speculation both about Moro’s future and about the immediate ramifications of his dramatic resignation for the Bolsonaro government. There are questions about the longer-term impact of these developments on Brazilian politics and the future of anticorruption reform.

How should the various actors in this drama handle the situation going forward? In the remainder of this post, I advance some tentative advice for three principal players—the Brazilian Congress, the investigative agencies (especially the Federal Police), and Moro himself. How these players handle this volatile situation over the coming weeks and months will have far-reaching implications for Brazilian politics and institutions.

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The Continuing Controversy Over the Destination of the Petrobras Penalties: The Coronavirus Crisis Has Ended One Debate, But May Start Another

As most readers of this blog are likely aware, the Brazilian state-owned oil company Petrobras has been at the center of a massive bribery scandal in Brazil, and the main focus of Brazil’s so-called Car Wash (Lava Jato) Operation. That Operation uncovered evidence that between 2006 and 2014, corporations paid kickbacks to senior Petrobras officials for inflated contracts, and the Petrobras officials funneled a substantial portion of those illicit proceeds to the political parties in the government’s coalition. These revelations lead to legal actions not only in Brazil, but also in the United States. Because Petrobras issued securities in the U.S., and because U.S. law imposes criminal liability on a corporation for the conduct of the corporation’s employees, Petrobras was potentially liable under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), because Petrobras officers had facilitated corruption abroad (that is, in Brazil). In September 2018,Petrobras signed a non-prosecution agreement (NPA) with the United States Department of Justice, according to which the company would pay over US$850 million in penalties. But, crucially, only 20% of that penalty would be paid to the United States; the remaining 80%, according to the terms of the NPA, was to be paid by Petrobras “to Brazil.”

This provision sparked great controversy and debate in Brazil over the destination of that money—a debate that seems to have been ended (for now) by the coronavirus crisis. The root of the problem is that under Brazilian law, Petrobras (the corporate entity) was considered victim of the bribery scheme, not a perpetrator. So, from a Brazilian perspective, it was hard to comprehend why the company should be obligated to pay for crimes that harmed it. Indeed, in many of the Car Wash cases resolved in Brazil, penalties recovered from other entities (such as the firms that paid kickbacks) were transferred to Petrobras. But under the NPA with U.S. authorities, Petrobras was required to pay over US$650 million to Brazil. What Brazilian entity or entities should get that money? And who should decide on the allocation?

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The Brazilian Courts’ Indefensible Double Standard: The Disparate Treatment of Harmless Procedural Errors in Corruption and Non-Corruption Cases

Before Brazil’s so-called Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) Operation, almost every attempt to prosecute high-level corruption in Brazil failed. Many cases were never investigated or prosecuted, but even in those cases where prosecutors started investigations, identified crimes, and brought charges, appeals courts ended up nullifying the proceedings, often before trial, on technical grounds for failure to comply with procedural rules (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). The result was a culture of impunity, in which grand corruption thrived. The Lava Jato Operation has been hailed as a historic breakthrough not only because of the breadth of the corruption it uncovered, but also because the convictions secured by prosecutors had, by and large, been affirmed on appeal. Unfortunately, there are troubling signs that the Brazilian judiciary is reverting to its old ways. Last October, for example, the Brazilian Supreme Court issued a procedural ruling  concerning the sequence of closing arguments that the Court held required the nullification of two Lava Jato convictions (so far), and may end up doing more widespread damage. The larger issue here, though, is the double-standard that Brazilian appellate courts seem to have embraced: adopting an (excessively) stringent and unforgiving view of even minor technical procedural noncompliance in corruption cases involving elite defendants, while at the same time relying (properly) on “harmless error” doctrines to excuse similar sorts of procedural noncompliance in cases involving other sorts of crimes, such as drug trafficking. Continue reading

The Shortcomings of the Leniency Agreement Provisions of Brazil’s Clean Company Act

If the CEO of a corporation operating in Brazil learns that her company has committed an unlawful act of corruption, should she order the corporation to self-report and negotiate a leniency agreement with the Brazilian authorities under Brazil’s 2013 Clean Company Act, which authorizes such settlements? In most of the cases, the corporate legal department would probably advise against it. Indeed, the number of leniency agreements based specifically on Brazil’s Clean Company Act has been much smaller than expected.

Several factors drive companies away from cooperating with Brazilian public authorities under the Clean Company Act:

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The Continuing Struggle Over Brazil’s Financial Intelligence Unit and Its Contribution to the Anticorruption Fight

The successful investigation and prosecution of high-level corruption crimes often requires access to detailed financial intelligence, which in turn requires close cooperation and information-sharing between law enforcement officials and financial intelligence units. This has certainly been the case in Brazil, where the Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation—considered the most successful anticorruption operation in Brazilian history—has been made possible in large measure by the reports supplied to federal prosecutors by Brazil’s financial intelligence unit,  known as the Counsel of Control of Financial Activities (COAF). COAF, created in 1998, has provided Brazilian federal prosecutors with suspicious activity reports on potential targets of the Lava Jato investigation, including politicians, high-level public officials, corporations, and business executives. And in the early days of the administration of President Bolsonaro, who positioned himself as an anticorruption champion during the election, there were some signs that COAF’s role in supporting law enforcement efforts would be strengthened. President Bolsonaro, for example, proposed transferring COAF from the Ministry of Economy to the Ministry of Justice—a signal that COAF would continue to work in the support of law enforcement activities—though the Congress rejected this proposal. President Bolsonaro’s Justice Minister, Sergio Moro, also nominated an auditor of the Brazilian Internal Revenue Service who worked in Lava Jato to be the new COAF chief.

But over the course of the last year, the ability of COAF to support anticorruption investigations has been jeopardized, partly by a judicial ruling, but also by other less visible efforts by the administration to undermine the unit’s autonomy.

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One Year After Bolsonaro’s Election, How Well Is His Administration Fighting Corruption in Brazil?

Exactly one year ago, on October 28th, 2018, Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing congressman and former army captain, was declared the winner of Brazil’s presidential election after receiving 55.13% of the valid votes. He defeated the center-left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad, ending the PT’s streak of four consecutive presidential election victories that had begun in 2002.

Brazil’s corruption problem played a major role in the election and in Bolsonaro’s victory. The Car Wash Operation had not only uncovered widespread corruption scandals during the PT administrations, but that Operation also led to the prosecution and conviction of former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, which rendered Lula ineligible to compete in the 2018 election. Moreover, Bolsonaro centered his campaign especially on a vigorous anticorruption discourse, promising to set a new standard of public integrity and to hold corrupt companies and politicians liable for their misconduct (see here and here). To be sure, Bolsonaro did not campaign exclusively on an anticorruption platform. He also positioned himself as the defender of more conservative social values and pledged to take a hardline approach to violent crime and drug trafficking. Yet his anticorruption rhetoric undoubtedly played a key role in his victory.

Even before the election, though, some commentators expressed skepticism that Bolsonaro would undertake genuine efforts to fight corruption and strengthen the institutions needed to promote integrity, and this skeptical view has been echoed by other commentators, both inside and outside of Brazil, during Bolsonaro’s first term (see, for example, here and here).

Now, one year since Bolsonaro’s electoral victory, is a suitable time to analyze the Bolsonaro Administration’s performance so far on anticorruption related issues. Have his substantive accomplishments in this area matched his tough rhetoric?

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International Scholars, Stay in Your Lane: The Risks of Uninformed Foreign Commentary on Corruption Cases

Last June, a group of international scholars and jurists published an article in the French newspaper Le Monde arguing that former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula), who was convicted and imprisoned in a case related to the Lava Jato (Car Wash) anticorruption investigation, did not receive a fair trial, and was the victim of political persecution. A couple months later, a slightly revised version of the article, styled as an open letter to the Brazilian people and Supreme Court, appeared in the Brazilian media, where it made quite a splash. The letter, which was republished on GAB last month, was signed by prominent US scholars, including Susan Rose-Ackerman and Bruce Ackerman, as well as lawyers, professors, and former judges from numerous Latin American and European countries. Echoing accusations leveled by The Intercept and other media outlets, the letter claimed that presiding judge Sergio Moro (now Justice Minister) conducted the proceedings in a partial fashion and directed the prosecution “in contempt for fundamental rules of the Brazilian procedure.” Judge Moro, the letter asserts, “manipulated substantial assistance plea bargaining mechanisms, oriented the prosecution service works, required the substitution of a prosecutor, and directed the prosecution’s public communication strategy.” Furthermore, the letter states that the Judge “wiretapped Lula’s lawyers” and “disobeyed an order from an appeal judge to release Lula”. The letter also contended that there was no material evidence of Lula’s corruption, and that his arrest, prosecution, and conviction were all prompted by the illicit political motive of excluding him from the 2018 presidential elections. In light of all this, the letter asserted that the Brazilian Supreme Court has a duty to release Lula and nullify his conviction.

These accusations are largely baseless, or at least presented in an extremely one-sided fashion that parrots what have become the standard talking points of Lula’s supporters. The Car Wash prosecutors effectively debunked the texts’ main arguments in a rebuttal also published on this blog. (The blog also published a response from Lula’s lawyers that rehashed the same talking points and alluded to as-yet-undisclosed evidence, but that didn’t otherwise counter the prosecutors’ clear documentation of the open letter’s many errors.) What most troubled me about the original article and the open letter was less the fact that these arguments were being advanced—again, by now they’re familiar pro-Lula talking points—but the fact that the texts were signed not only by lawyers, but also by renowned law and political science professors. Lawyers are expected to act as advocates. But scholars are supposed to be more judicious, more scrupulous about evidence, and more circumspect about making bold, aggressive claims on subjects whose factual and legal particularities they don’t fully understand. Continue reading