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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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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Lula’s Lawyers Respond to the Lava Jato Prosecutors’ Letter

Last week, GAB published two letters presenting alternative perspectives on the so-called “Car Wash” (Lava Jato) anticorruption operation in Brazil, in particular the prosecution and conviction of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula). The first letter was a re-publication of an open letter sent by a group of international jurists and scholars, who asserted that Lula did not receive a fair trial and that the prosecutors were politically biased. The second letter was a reply from the prosecutors, who defended their conduct, argued that the conviction of Lula was legitimate and not politically motivated, and contended that a number of factual and legal assertions in the international jurists’ letter were incorrect.

After publication of that post, I received a message from Lula’s lawyers (the law firm of Teixeira, Martins & Advogados), who asked me to publish their letter in response to the prosecutors. In the interest of furthering this important substantive debate, I am presenting their letter below: Continue reading

A Group of International Jurists and Scholars Condemns the Conviction of Former Brazilian President Lula as Unfair and Politically Motivated. A Group of Brazilian Prosecutors Defend Their Conduct, and the Conviction. Read Their Dueling Open Letters Here!

One of the biggest stories in the anticorruption community over the last few months—and one that we’ve featured extensively here on GAB—has been the controversy swirling around the so-called “Lava Jato” (Car Wash) anticorruption operation in Brazil, in light of private text messages among the Lava Jato prosecutors, and between prosecutors and then-Judge Sérgio Moro. These messages were stolen from hacked cell phones and provided to The Intercept, which published a series of stories based on them and also shared them with other media outlines. Critics, including the Intercept journalists, have argued that these messages show unethical conduct, political bias, and due process violations by the Lava Jato prosecutors and by Judge Moro, and that this alleged misconduct demonstrates that the convictions of many of the Lava Jato defendants—most importantly, former President Lula—ought to be thrown out. Others remain unconvinced by the most serious accusations of political bias, and find many of the allegations of misconduct questionable. (For my own, somewhat evolving take on these issues, see here and here, and for a useful debate among Brazilian legal experts, see here.)

Recently, a group of international jurists and scholars weighed in, writing an open letter in which they declared their view that, in light of the evidence revealed by the leaked text messages, Lula did not receive a fair trial and was the victim of political persecution. (An English translation of the letter is available here; the original Portuguese text can be found here.) In response, a group of 20 Brazilian Federal Prosecutors wrote a reply to the open letter’s signatories, arguing that the allegations in the open letter were based on an inaccurate, incomplete, or distorted representation of the facts. The prosecutors’ response letter has not previously been published, but the prosecutors have provided me with that letter and given me permission to post a slightly-revised version here.

I have my own views on the merits of the underlying dispute, which I may go into in a later post, but here I just want to present the two letters side by side, in the hope that this will be helpful to others who have been following this controversy and are trying to better understand the complicated questions at issue. I’ll present this in point-counterpoint format, starting with the English translation of the original open letter (with some corrections to apparent errors or ambiguities in the original translation linked above), and then presenting the prosecutors’ rebuttal: Continue reading

Do the Lava Jato Leaks Show Illegal or Unethical Behavior? A Debate Between Brazilian Legal Experts

As readers of this blog are likely well aware, last month The Intercept published a series of articles, in both Portuguese and English, that called into question the fairness, legitimacy, and motivations of the Lava Jato (or “Car Wash”) anticorruption operation in Brazil. These articles were based on private text messages between prosecutors and then-Judge Sergio Moro (and among members of the prosecution team) that The Intercept obtained from an anonymous source (widely suspected to be an outside party who hacked prosecutors’ cell phones). The revelations raise a number of questions about the Lava Jato operation, including whether the leaked text messages demonstrate that Judge Moro violated Brazilian law and/or ethical codes, and if so whether these breaches would invalidate the convictions of at least some of the Lava Jato defendants, most notably former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula).

Shortly after the first set of Intercept stories came out, I offered my own perspective on the implication of the leaked text messages (see here and here). But on the specific question of whether these text messages were unlawful or unethical, I was and remain uncertain, not least because evaluating this particular question requires expertise in Brazilian law. To help shed further light on this topic, and to assist others in understanding the complex legal and ethical questions at stake, today’s blog post features a point-counterpoint debate between two Brazilian legal experts with opposing perspectives on this question:

  • First, Ademar Borges de Sousa Filho (a Professor of Law at IDB-Brasilia and a practicing defense attorney) makes the case that the text messages disclosed by The Intercept demonstrate that Judge Moro behaved unethically and unlawfully, and that his lack of impartiality requires the nullification of the conviction of Lula (and possibly other Lava Jato defendants, though any such decisions would need to be made on a case-by-case basis).
  • Next, Luciano Benetti Timm (the National Consumer Protection Secretary at the Brazilian Ministry of Justice and Professor of Law at FGV São Paulo) presents a rebuttal, arguing, first, that the unauthenticated text messages obtained by The Intercept are not legally admissible, and that even if they were, they do not demonstrate any illegal partiality, or unethical behavior, by Judge Moro, and therefore do not provide grounds for questioning the convictions of Lula (or any other Lava Jato defendant).

Before proceeding, I should note that there are a number of other legal and political issues that are being hotly debated inside and outside of Brazil related to the Lava Jato case, Lula’s conviction, and related matters. The pieces below do not address these other issues, because I specifically requested Professor Borges and Professor Timm to focus narrowly on the question of the legality/ethics of the communications between Judge Moro and the Lava Jato prosecutors. I hope that readers find the debate below useful and enlightening on this issue. Continue reading

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