The Incredible Shrinking Scandal? Further Reflections on the Lava Jato Leaks

Last week, I published a lengthy commentary on the recent explosive reports from the Intercept regarding the Lava Jato operation in Brazil—reports that were based primarily on text messages provided by a source who apparently hacked (or otherwise gained unauthorized access to) the cell phone of Deltan Dallagnol, the lead prosecutor in the case. Because I am unable to read Portuguese, my discussion was based exclusively on the two substantive English-language reports, here and here. (There are more reports in the series, but so far they’ve not been translated into English; if and when they are, I may update my commentary.) The Intercept’s reports argued that these leaked text messages indicate: (1) that Judge Moro engaged in unethical and possibly illegal coordinating with and coaching of the prosecutors; (2) that the prosecutors recognized that their case against former President Lula was without solid legal or evidentiary foundation; and (3) that the prosecutors were motivated by political/ideological bias against Lula and his party, the PT.

In last week’s commentary, based on my preliminary analysis of the Intercept stories, and what I knew about the background context, I reached the following tentative conclusions:

  • First, I thought that the evidence of extensive text communications between the lead prosecutor and the presiding judge was (or at least should be) per se impermissible. I used very strong language in making this point, describing the fact that the two were in regular text contact as “the height of impropriety,” and a “shocking and inexcusable breach of judicial ethics.”
  • Second, though, I thought that the specific text exchanges reported by the Intercept—the ones that allegedly showed the coaching and collaboration—were largely innocuous, and didn’t seem to contain much problematic material over and above the fact of the communications themselves.
  • Third, I did not think that the text messages reported by the Intercept provided any reason to call into question the legal and evidentiary basis for Lula’s conviction. That conviction was and remains controversial, but the leaked text messages don’t show anything other than a prosecutor preparing appropriately for his case.
  • Fourth, I concluded that although texts exchanged among prosecutors in late September 2018 did indeed indicate that the prosecutors did not want the PT candidate to win the election, this didn’t necessarily show that the prosecutors were biased against the PT back in 2015-2016 (when the decision to investigate and prosecute Lula took place), nor was there any evidence that the prosecutors had taken any concrete action that could be ascribed to partisan bias.

Much to my surprise, last week’s post seems to have attracted a lot of attention, particularly in Brazil. As a result, I’ve had the opportunity to engage in substantive exchanges with multiple Brazilian experts from across the political spectrum, who hold a wide range of views on Lava Jato, Lula, and related matters. Some of these exchanges can be found in the comment section of last week’s post, which I highly recommend that interested readers check out (particularly those who might have read that post the day it came out, before the comment thread included over 60 separate entries); others have communicated with my privately. (To be clear, though, I have not communicated about the post, publicly or privately, with Mr. Dallagnol or anyone else named or discussed in the Intercept story.)

Based on these conversations, and on further reflection, my views on the Intercept’s reporting have shifted somewhat, mainly in the direction of thinking that this “scandal” is considerably less scandalous than the Intercept reported, or that I’d originally believed. Continue reading

Just How Damning Are the Lava Jato Leaks? Some Preliminary Reflections on The Intercept’s Bombshell Story

[Note: My thinking on the issues discussed in this post has evolved somewhat. For the update, see here.]

Two days ago, The Intercept published a collection of dramatic reports (here, here, and here) regarding the long-running Brazilian investigation into high-level corruption. That investigation, known as the Lava Jato (Car Wash) operation, which began as in inquiry into money laundering and associated offenses at the Brazilian state-owned oil company Petrobras, has led to the prosecutions and convictions of scores of powerful business leaders and senior politicians—including, most notably, the conviction and imprisonment of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (known as Lula). That conviction prevented Lula from competing in the presidential election in 2018, an election that was one by far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Anger on the Brazilian political left over Lula’s conviction, as well as the impeachment and removal of his successor Dilma Rouseff, has provoked accusations that the Lava Jato operation is really a right-wing conspiracy, and that the Lava Jato task force—the special team of prosecutors led by Deltan Dallagnol—and Sergio Moro, who presided over the most significant Lava Jato trials, including Lula’s, are politically biased enemies of the Left who are engineering a kind of coup d’etat through the judicial system. Many people, both in Brazil and internationally (me included), have pushed back against these accusations.

The Intercept’s recent reports assert that the critics were right all along. The evidence for this consists mainly of a huge quantity of data (texts, emails, and video and audio recordings) from a cell phone—almost certainly Mr. Dallagnol’s, based on the fact that all of the reported exchanges involve him. The Intercept has published a set of stories (some in English, some in Portuguese) based on a small portion of this material, mainly text message exchanges; the reporters emphasize that more is likely to emerge as they and other journalists review more of the leaked/hacked data. The big story here is that, according to the Intercept’s reporting, these text messages provide evidence of serious ethical breaches, particularly by then-Judge Moro, as well as evidence that the prosecutors knew their case against Lula was not strong, and, most damningly, that the task force prosecutors were motivated by partisan antipathy toward Lula and his party (the Worker’s Party, or PT), despite their claims to the contrary.

What to make of this? The news is clearly bad for the Lava Jato operation, the task force, and those of us who have supported the operation and defended it against various accusations and attacks. The question I want to address here is: Just how bad is it? My tentative answer is that, while the Intercept’s reports reveal some very upsetting, disappointing, and in some cases likely unethical conduct, the leaked text messages quoted in these first reports are not as damning as either the Intercept or other preliminary reports have made them appear. In this post (which will be longer than usual), I’ll try to work through the various allegations and associated texts and do my best to assess which revelations are most serious, which least so, and where we really need more evidence before making even a preliminary judgment. Continue reading

Video: CAPI Panel on “Anti-Corruption Efforts in Latin America”

Recent developments in the fight against corruption across Latin America seem to have prompted an increasing number of conferences, workshops, and similar events that focus on this issue. (I was able to participate in one such event at Rice University’s Baker Center a few months back.) Last month, Columbia University’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) held another, similar event that may be of interest to those who follow these developments (indeed, perhaps of even greater interest to those who haven’t been following them, but would like to get up to speed). The panel, entitled “Anti-Corruption Efforts in Latin America: Perspectives from Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico,” was moderated by Daniel Alonso (Managing Director of Exiger), and featured four senior lawyers from the region: Eloy Rizzo Neto (Brazil), Gustavo Morales Oliver (Argentina), Diego Sierra (Mexico), and Daniel Rodriguez (Colombia). The video of the discussion can be found here. And here’s a quick overview of the discussion, with corresponding time markers for the video: Continue reading

A Plan To Share FCPA Penalties with Brazil has Been Thwarted… by Brazil: The Supreme Court’s Invalidation of the Lava Jato Foundation

A frequent criticism of how the US Department of Justice (DOJ) enforces the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) is that the fines recovered typically go to the US Treasury, rather than being used to make reparations for the damages caused by corruption in the countries where the bribery took place. Those who hold that view were likely encouraged by the non-prosecution agreement (NPA) that the DOJ concluded with Petrobras, the Brazilian state-owned oil company, in September 2018. The US enforcement action against Petrobras is a development of the so-called Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation, in which firms paid off some Petrobras’ senior employees to benefit them in the contracts they had with the oil company. Such senior employees also shared a portion of the briber of politicians and political parties. In Brazil, Petrobras (and its shareholders, including the Brazilian federal government) are considered the victims of this scheme, but the US DOJ considered Petrobras a perpetrator (as well as a victim), because Petrobras officials had facilitated the bribe payments, in violation of the FCPA. Thus, the DOJ brought an enforcement action against Petrobras, and the parties settled via an NPA that required Petrobras to pay over US$852 million in penalties for FCPA violations. But—and here is the interesting part—the NPA also stated that the US government would credit against this judgment 80% of the total (over US$682 million) that Petrobras would pay to Brazilian authorities pursuant to an agreement to be negotiated subsequently between Petrobras and the Brazilian authorities.

This unusual agreement was the result of unusually close cooperation between U.S. and Brazilian authorities, especially the Lava Jato Task Force (group of federal prosecutors handling a series of Petrobras-related cases). After the conclusion of the NPA between the DOJ and Petrobras, the Task Force then entered into negotiations with Petrobras and reached an agreement under which Petrobras would use US$682 million that it would otherwise owe to the US government to create a private charity, known unofficially as the Lava Jato Foundation, with the Foundation using half of the money to sponsor public interest initiatives, and the other half to compensate minority shareholders in Petrobras. According to the agreement, the Foundation would be governed by a committee of five unpaid members from civil society organizations, to be appointed by the Task Force upon judicial confirmation. Once created, the Task Forcewould have the prerogative to have one of its members sitting at the Foundation’s board.

This resolution of the Petrobras case seemed to be a win-win resolution and a promising precedent for future cases: The US imposed a hefty sanction for violation of US law, but most of the money would be used to help the Brazilian people, who are arguably the ones most harmed by Petrobras’s unlawful conduct. Yet this arrangement has proven extremely controversial in Brazil, both politically and legally. Indeed, the issue has divided the country’s own federal prosecutors: The Prosecutor General (the head of the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, from which the Lava Jato Task Force enjoys a broad independence) challenged the creation of the Foundation as unconstitutional. She prevailed on that challenge in Brazil’s Supreme Court (Supremo Tribunal Federalor STF), which suspended the operation of the Foundation.

What, exactly, was the legal argument against the creation of the Lava Jato Foundation, and what are the implications of the STF’s ruling for this approach to remediating the impacts of foreign bribery going forward?

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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.

Continue reading

“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