“Say It Ain’t So, Sergio!”: Judge Moro’s Apointment to the Bolsonaro Cabinet Is a Setback for Brazil’s Struggle Against Corruption

Two weeks ago, far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro was elected President of Brazil. Likely no single factor explains Bolsonaro’s success, but as I noted in a previous post, disgust at the corruption of the Worker’s Party (the PT), which had been exposed by the so-called Car Wash (Lava Jato) investigation, likely played a significant part. The Lava Jato operation has brought to light shocking levels of corruption, mainly though not exclusively at Brazil’s state-owned oil company Petrobras, and has led to the convictions of scores of businesspeople and politicians. Some of the key figures involved in the Lava Jato operation, including prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol and Judge Sergio Moro, have become national heroes, at least in some quarters. But their popularity is by no means universal. The fact that Lava Jato has investigated and convicted so many PT politicians, including former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (known as Lula), has led some PT members and sympathizers to accuse the investigators, prosecutors, and judges involved in the Lava Jato operation as engaged in a politically-motivated right-wing conspiracy against Lula, the PT, and the left generally. On this account, Lula is a “political prisoner,” and the impeachment and removal of his successor, President Dilma Rousseff, was a “coup.”

Many people, me included, have pushed back hard against the notion that the Lava Jato operation is a politically-motivated conspiracy. The evidence that has come too light seems incontrovertible, and while critics have identified a number of questionable decisions by the prosecutors and judges (criticisms I’m not in a position to evaluate on the merits), the notion that it’s all a politically motivated sham are baseless. Overall my impression, shared by many other domestic and international observers, is that the Lava Jato operation has been conducted with great professionalism. Yes, it’s true that the operation has targeted many PT figures, but Lava Jato has gone after politicians from across the political spectrum, and if PT politicians seem to make up a disproportionate share, this is most likely because the PT had held the presidency from 2003 to 2016, first under Lula and then under Dilma. Furthermore, many of us in the international community, along with a number of Brazilian anticorruption scholars and activists, worried that these unsubstantiated attacks on the integrity of Lava Jato—attacks that go beyond challenging individual decisions or rulings—would do serious damage to the longer-term development of an effective set of institutional checks and balances in Brazil. One doesn’t need to subscribe to a naïve view that prosecutors and judges are entirely “neutral” to recognize the importance of developing institutions of justice that are not, and are not perceived as, partisan or “political” in the crude sense.

It’s in that context that I was so disheartened to learn last week that Judge Moro had accepted President-Elect Bolsonaro’s appointment to serve as Minister for Justice. I have no reason to doubt Judge Moro’s integrity or to believe that he accepted this job for any reason other than because he believes it will give him an opportunity to serve his country. But I nonetheless fear that it was a mistake, one that will set back Brazil’s ongoing efforts to develop more robust anticorruption institutions. Continue reading

Brazil’s Electoral Dilemma: Which Outcome Will Be Better for Anticorruption?

My post last week expressed some dismay at the political situation in Brazil, and the role that understandable disgust at widespread corruption in the left-wing Worker’s Party (PT), which controlled the presidency from 2003 to 2016, seems to be playing in contributing to the astonishing electoral success of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro—whose extremist views, history of bigotry, violent rhetoric, and admiration for autocrats has led some to label him, with justification, as a quasi-fascist—was the top vote-getter in the first round of Brazilian’s two-round presidential election system, and he is favored to win the run-off against PT candidate Fernando Haddad on October 28. Though I’m no expert on Brazil or its politics, this situation—voter revulsion at the corruption of the mainstream parties leading to the rise of a tough-talking extremist—is distressingly familiar. It’s a pattern we’ve seen play out in several countries now, usually with quite unfortunate consequences. So, much as I believe that corruption is a serious problem, and tend to support aggressive anticorruption efforts—including the so-called Car Wash (Lava Jato) investigations in Brazil—I used my last post to express my dismay that anticorruption sentiments might propel someone like Bolsonaro to victory. Some things, I argued, are more important than corruption.

The post seems to have touched a nerve—I’ve gotten far more feedback on that post (some in the public comments section, some in private communications) than anything else I’ve written in the four and half years I’ve been blogging about corruption. While some of the comments have been the sort of substance-free invective one gets used to on the internet, a lot of people have provided useful, thoughtful, constructive criticism and pushback of various kinds. So I thought that perhaps it would be worth doing another post on this general topic, and connecting my thoughts about the current Brazilian political situation to some more general themes or problems that those of us who work on anticorruption need to confront, whether or not we have any particular interest in Brazil. Continue reading

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.

We should be careful what we wish for. Continue reading

The Lula Opinions (Trial Court Verdict and Summary of Appeals Court Affirmance), Now Available in English Translation

The conviction and imprisonment of former Brazilian President (and current would-be presidential candidate) Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) is among of the most consequential and polarizing outcomes of a corruption investigation in recent memory. The case that led to Lula’s conviction (one of several that were pending against him) did not necessarily involve the biggest or most important allegations, but it was the one that was brought first, presumably because this was the case where the prosecutors felt they had all the evidence they needed to proceed, though critics insist that the case was rushed through on skimpy evidence in order to disable Lula from seeking the presidency in this month’s election.

I only know a bit about the specifics of the case, which involved a beachfront apartment than a construction company had allegedly promised to Lula in return for helping the company secure contracts with Brazil’s state-owned oil company. (Lula, for his part, claims that he was never promised the apartment and the only evidence otherwise is unreliable testimony from one of the company’s executives, who offered the testimony in exchange for a reduced sentence as part of a plea bargain.) But I’ve been repeatedly told by passionate, seemingly well-informed Brazilians on both sides of this debate that the judicial opinions in this case—the original trial court verdict and the appellate court affirmance—demonstrate that their side of the argument is clearly correct:

  • On the one hand, I’ve been told by several of Lula’s strong supporters that the charges against him are bogus and the conviction is improper. “Just read the judicial opinions from the trial court and the appeals court,” one of them told me last spring, “and it will be obvious that they make no sense, and that there was no real legal or factual basis for the conviction.” (I’m paraphrasing, but only slightly.)
  • On the other hand, I’ve been told by supporters of the prosecution in this case that Lula’s conviction was the right legal result, and that the attacks on the verdict (and the associated attacks on the prosecutors and judges) are politically-motivated obfuscation. “Just read the judicial opinions from the trial court and the appeals court,” several people with this view have emphasized, “and it will be obvious that the law and the evidence amply supported the verdict.”

Since smart, well-informed advocates on both sides have told me I should read the opinions, that seemed like a sensible thing to do. Until recently, though, this would not have been possible, as the opinions were (to my knowledge) only available in Portuguese, which I do not read. But I was recently informed that the trial court opinion, as well as an official summary of the appeals court opinion, are now available online in English translation! I haven’t had a chance to read them yet (the trial court opinion is 185 pages long; the summary of the appellate court ruling is a more succinct six pages); I may post again after I’ve done so if I feel like I’ve got anything useful to say. For now, it occurs to me that there might be other non-Portuguese speakers out there who are following developments in Brazil and would like to read these opinions for themselves, so I’m posting the links:

  • The trial court verdict is here.
  • A summary of the appellate court ruling is here. (I’m still hoping to find and post an English translation of the full appeals court ruling.)

Hopefully this will be helpful to others who are trying to work through what they think about the accusations and counter-accusations swirling around this high-profile case. Again, there’s only so much an outsider can learn from the text of court opinions, especially without knowing more about the surrounding context and the details of Brazilian law, but I figure this will at least be helpful.

[NOTE: The original version of this post erroneously characterized the appeals court document linked to above as the full appeals court ruling. That was incorrect; the online document is an English translation of the summary of the appeals court ruling. The text of the post–as well as its title–have been changed to correct this mistake.]

Will Brazilians Elect Their Own Donald Trump?

Will Brazil get its own Donald Trump? Brazil’s next election is right around the corner (the campaign starts August 16, and first round elections are October 2) but currently Jair Bolsonaro—a right wing, pro-gun rights, anti-gay firebrand who has proudly branded himself the “next Donald Trump”—is polling first among eligible candidates, trailing only former president Lula Inácio de Silva—who as of now is not actually allowed to run due to his conviction on corruption charges—and the “null option” (that is, none-of-the-above). What explains Bolsonaro’s appeal? In large part, the issue of corruption. Revelations of graft and bribery have continued to pile up in Brazil over the last few years—most notably (though not exclusively) in connection with the so-called Car Wash investigation of corruption in Brazil’s state-owned oil company, which may have involved upwards of $5 billion in stolen public funds. These corruption scandals have already led to the impeachment and removal of former President Dilma Rousseff, criminal charges against the current President Michel Temer, and the conviction and imprisonment of former President Lula. Given all this, it’s little wonder that in a recent poll, corruption was ranked as the most important issue for 62% of Brazilian citizens.

Much as Donald Trump pledged to “drain the swamp,” Bolsonaro has centered his campaign on the issue of corruption. He asserts that he is the only candidate in the election who has not engaged in some form of corruption or white collar crime. Of the five major presidential candidates, he’s the only one who is not either from a major party that has been mired in a recent corruption scandal, or been part of a coalition with one of those tainted parties. (Bolsonaro’s party, the PSL (Social Liberal Party) is small, barely present at the national level, and he is advertising his status as a political outsider as one of his appeals.) Thus Bolsonaro has presented himself as the only candidate who will usher in a new, less corrupt era for Brazil.

This places some Brazilian voters who care deeply about corruption in a difficult situation. Many Brazilians may feel like their only alternative to perpetuating a corrupt system is to take a gamble on a disruptive figure like Bolsonaro. Indeed, at a recent campaign event, supporters cited his aggressive anticorruption and anti-crime stances as the principal reasons why they were planning to vote for him. Diehard supporters aside, it’s possible that some Brazilian voters who are not totally comfortable with Bolsonaro might nevertheless be swayed by his outsider persona and his aggressive attacks on Brazil’s current political class. For those who have followed U.S. politics over the past few years, this probably sounds disturbingly familiar—and indeed seems to fit into a now-recognizable pattern, also manifested in the Philippines’ 2016 election of populist, zero-tolerance Duterte. It’s precisely that similarity that should, and I hope will, give these on-the-fence Brazilian voters pause. Continue reading

When and Why Do Corrupt Politicians Champion Corruption Reform? A Character Study

Can corrupt leaders enact effective anticorruption reform? The brief answer seems to be yes: Leaders who are (perceived as) corrupt can initiate and support effective anticorruption reform efforts. For example, as this blog has previously discussed, President Peña-Nieto (who has repeatedly been accused of corruption and graft) supported constitutional anticorruption reforms in Mexico. Egypt’s current President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has similarly launched various anticorruption campaigns, even while fending off numerous corruption allegations.

But why do corrupt leaders institute anticorruption reforms? While there’s no universal explanation, there appear to be at least three archetypes that might help anticorruption activists identify and push unlikely reformers: The Power Player, The Top-Down Director, and The Born-Again Reformer. Continue reading

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:

Continue reading