Brazil Graft Probe Widens to Dozens of Top Politicians

  • Latest development highlights tense political atmosphere
  • House speaker, Senate leader among those facing inquiry

Edson Fachin.

Photographer: Andressa Anholete/AFP via Getty Images

Brazil’s under-fire political establishment was dealt another blow on Tuesday after a Supreme Court judge authorized investigations into leading members of the government as well as dozens of the country’s most senior politicians.

Eight ministers, 29 senators, 42 federal deputies and three governors face inquiries over corruption allegations following Judge Edson Fachin’s decision, according to the Supreme Court website. Brazil’s last five living presidents will also be subject to graft investigations by a lower court.

For a country long accustomed to the impunity of its political elite, the latest development in the wide-ranging corruption scandal known as Operation Carwash represents a significant moment. Under Brazilian law, serving politicians are shielded from prosecution by the lower courts, but Judge Fachin’s decision paves the way for criminal charges in the country’s highest tribunal. While President Michel Temer has not been implicated, the investigations into many of his closest allies threatens to destabilize the government at a key moment for its unpopular reform agenda.

"[Supreme Court Judge] Fachin’s list means the stormy political seas continue," said Rafael Cortez, a political analyst from Tendencias consultancy firm. "The loss of legitimacy of the political class will continue to grow," he added, limiting the window of opportunity for the government to secure approval for its legislative program.

The Bovespa stock index took a hit following the publication of the names, but subsequently pared losses.

Some Brazilian politicians argue that the accusations are so widespread that they are unlikely to have a significant impact on the government’s agenda. "Carwash won’t affect the voting because it’s hit the political spectrum from A to Z," said Efraim Filho, the leader of the government-allied Democratas party.

Temer said he would not let the latest developments "paralyze activity in Congress" during an event to sign women’s rights legislation on Wednesday morning.

"If we’re not careful, soon the executive won’t function, Congress won’t function and the judiciary won’t function," he said.

Allies Accused

Rodrigo Maia, the speaker of the lower house, and second-in-line to the presidency, and Eunicio Oliveira, the leader of the Senate, were among those named on Tuesday. Both men play a key role in shepherding the government’s reform agenda through Congress.

Maia said that due process would show that the accusations against him are false. He canceled a vote in the lower house on a bill to tackle states’ debts after the news was published but said that his decision was motivated by low attendance, not the judge’s list. Oliveira wrote that the Brazilian justice system has sufficient maturity to "distinguish between lies and alternative versions of the truth" in a text message.

The ministers who face investigation are Eliseu Padilha, Brazil’s chief of staff; Moreira Franco, the presidency general secretary; Gilberto Kassab, the communications minister; Helder Barbalho, the national integration minister; Aloysio Nunes, the foreign minister; Blairo Maggi, the agriculture minister; Bruno Araujo, the cities’ minister; and Marcos Pereira, the trade and industry minister.

Roberto Freire, the culture minister, was initially among those named in local media reports. The Supreme Court subsequently clarified that the prosecutor’s office had requested an inquiry into Freire but the court had asked for further information before authorizing an investigation.

The press office of Brazil’s presidency declined to comment.

The judge’s decision follows a request by Brazil’s chief public prosecutor, Rodrigo Janot, who sent a list of 108 names to the Supreme Court last month. Much of his evidence was based on plea-bargain testimony from Odebrecht SA executives.

The prosecutor’s office has now been authorized to investigate further those named by Fachin. If prosecutors find sufficient evidence of wrongdoing they will file charges at the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court accepts the charges, those accused become defendants in a criminal trial.

Temer has said that any minister charged by the prosecutor-general will be suspended from his government; and any one who becomes a defendant will be expelled. Such processes can take years, but Operation Carwash has led to some unusually swift results. Eduardo Cunha, the mastermind of Rousseff’s impeachment, was house speaker as recently as August. He is now in prison, sentenced to over fifteen years on corruption charges.

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