Judge in Brazil’s ’Carwash’ Corruption Probe Dies in Plane Crash

  • Judge Zavascki oversaw trials of defendants in Carwash probe
  • Top Court bylaws allow appointment of new judge for trials

Teori Zavascki

Photographer: Andressa Anholete/AFP via Getty Images

A Brazilian Supreme Court judge who was presiding over Operation Carwash, a massive corruption probe, has died in a plane crash.

President Michel Temer confirmed the death of Teori Zavascki, 68, on Thursday evening, describing him as a "good man" and declaring three days of national mourning. Former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva expressed his condolences over Zavascki’s death. "Brazil has lost a citizen who brought honor to the judiciary," he wrote.

Zavascki was the judge overseeing the trials of political defendants in the Carwash investigation at the Supreme Court. Carwash is a long-running probe into corruption at the state-run oil firm Petrobras that has ensnared dozens of Brazil’s leading business executives and politicians. The investigation, which has reached the upper echelons of Brazilian politics, including Lula, has been led by another judge, Sergio Moro.

“Without him there would be no Operation Carwash," Moro wrote in a note released by his office.

The judge was traveling in a Hawker Beechcraft turboprop aircraft which set off from the Campo de Marte airport in Sao Paulo around 1pm local time and crashed into the sea half an hour later near the town of Paraty, in the state of Rio de Janeiro. No cause has yet been given for the accident. The sky was clouded and it was raining lightly at the time of the crash, according to local media reports.

Four other passengers were also killed, including a businessman and friend of Zavascki whose company owned the plane, the pilot, a physiotherapist and her mother.

Carwash Testimonies

At the time of his death, Zavascki was assessing the plea bargain testimonies given to prosecutors by executives in construction companies including Odebrecht, who are being investigated as part of Carwash. Once the testimonies are approved by a Supreme Court judge, they become public, potentially implicating yet more politicians in Brazil and other countries in the scandal. Zavascki had said he would complete his review of the testimonies by the end of February.

Analysts at Eurasia Group consulting firm said the death of the supreme court judge will delay but "not undermine" Carwash.

“While in theory a sitting minister on the court could make time sensitive decisions on the Carwash probe until a new rapporteur is chosen, major decisions on the Odebrecht plea bargain will probably wait until a new rapporteur to the case is nominated. That could take some time."

Brazil’s federal police have launched an investigation into the crash, following a request for a full investigation by the association of federal judges and the president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros. A number of high-profile Brazilians have died in plane crashes in recent years, including Roger Agnelli, the head of mining company Vale SA, and Eduardo Campos, a presidential candidate in 2014.

President Temer, who has been cited in some Carwash plea bargain testimony but is not under investigation, has the sole authority to appoint a new supreme court judge. The appointee must then be confirmed by the Senate. According to Brazilian law, in the case of the death of a Supreme Court judge, the court may reappoint cases under that judge’s jurisdiction. Supreme Court bylaws allow the top justice to reassign a new rapporteur to urgent cases, said Rubens Glezer, a professor at FGV Law School in Sao Paulo.

“The options now as to who takes on Carwash depend on interpretation," he said. “Initially, the minister who takes Teori’s place would take on all his cases, but Chief Justice Carmen Lucia could hand urgent cases to a new judge at random.”

— With assistance by Vanessa Dezem

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