Even Brazil's Sports Minister Succumbs to Scandal: Dom Phillips

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"Ten reasons to be indignant about corruption," proclaimed the Oct. 26 issue of Brazilian news weekly Veja as it hit newsstands. On its cover, the magazine listed what could be done with the 85 billion reais "embezzled by corrupt Brazilians in the last year."

Options included eradicating extreme poverty, constructing 150 miles (241 kilometers) of new subway lines, reducing the interest rate by 1.2 percentage points and funding 2 million scholarships for master's degrees.

Or buying "18 million designer handbags, just like those that the corrupt give as gifts to their wives and lovers."

Corruption has been a burning issue for the administration of President Dilma Rousseff, which had already lost numerous staffers and four ministers to scandals. (All have denied wrongdoing.)

For the past two weeks, a major controversy has been brewing around Orlando Silva, the high-profile minister of sport in charge of both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

Veja broke the story. "The Minister was receiving money in the Ministry's garage," read a cover line in its Oct. 19 issue. "Witnesses of corruption directly accuse Orlando Silva."

Inside, the magazine detailed the alleged scam:

A structure organized by the party functioned inside the Ministry of Sport to divert public money using friendly NGOs as fronts. And the most amazing thing: Minister Orlando Silva is appointed as mentor and beneficiary of the scheme.

The structure they referred to was a program called Second Half, which was started to encourage needy children and adolescents to play sports. Silva, who became minister in 2006, is accused of taking part in a scheme to illegally divert funds from the program.

On Oct. 21, the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper weighed in, alleging that the ministry had given 9.4 million reais to a nongovernmental organization connected to Silva's assistant. The next day, Folha had more.

"The founder of a church that received 1.2 million reais from the Ministry of Sport says he was pressured to pass on 10 percent of the money to the coffers of the PCdoB, the party that controls the ministry," said the paper, referring to Silva's Communist Party of Brazil, which has run the ministry since 2003 and is part of Rousseff's coalition.

Folha published an interview with the pastor concerned, David Castro, a retired Central Bank employee. He said the church received a portion of the money in 2006 to pay for athletic activities for children under Second Half. He alleged that the money dried up because he refused to pay a 10 percent bribe.

"A bunch of vultures came to eat the project's little children," he said.

Epoca magazine ran a red cover for its issue dated Oct. 24. It showed a hammer and sickle and the party name PCdoB turned into PDdoBolso, or "Communist Party of the Pocket."

"How the communists who've installed themselves in the center of power have turned themselves into a focus of the Dilma government's scandals," read the cover.

Epoca noted the extent to which Rousseff's government has come under fire for sleaze.

Corruption is the shortcut for forces that are much less powerful than 100 million voters to try and influence the government and increase the value of their private interests. These secret forces attack full democracy and hinder the country from advancing in the debates necessary to its future. It's not enough, therefore, to take one or another minister from their job if the system that allows corrupt actions stays as it is.

In a television interview, Silva defended himself: "Time will pass, tomorrow will arrive, and the next day, and I will ask again: Where is the proof? It hasn't appeared yet because the proof doesn't exist."

As the Globo G1 news website pointed out, Silva's accuser, a communist party militant named Joao Dias Ferreira who was arrested last year on corruption charges (which he denies), had been unable to provide evidence that tied Silva to the scheme.

Even so, on Oct. 25, Globo's G1 news site announced that the Supreme Federal Tribunal was opening an inquiry into Silva and the Second Half program.

The same day, the beleaguered minister was in a tumultuous session at the Chamber of Deputies, talking about soccer. Party allies praised Silva's performance, in which he doggedly continued to talk about World Cup regulations while opposition politicians demanded his resignation.

During the session, ACM Neto, leader of the opposition Democratic Party, took the opportunity to deliver Silva a crushing rebuke, using the most elegant of formal Portuguese. "The presence of your Excellency is an affront to the Brazilian people. The Brazilian people would like Senhor out of the Ministry," he said.

The remark contributed to a sense that it was becoming impossible for Silva to do his job. “The government has begun to consider Orlando’s situation close to unsustainable,” Folha said.

By yesterday afternoon, it was all over: Silva delivered his resignation to the president, and was still protesting his innocence at a news conference afterward. He said:

I reaffirmed to the president that there is not, there has never been and there will not be any kind of proof that incriminates me, unlike what was published in a weekly Brazilian magazine. There is not one fact that can compromise my honor or ethical conduct.

Although Rousseff has lost yet another minister, and Brazil’s preparations for the World Cup look shakier than ever, her grip on power remains firm, with many Brazilians crediting her for confronting corruption aggressively. Still, a sense of civic indignation is growing. As Veja observed, Brazilian protesters use the same "V for Vendetta" Guy Fawkes masks as demonstrators in the U.S. and Europe, but they've been focusing their fury on corruption rather than economic grievances.

Their message may be getting through: Brazil’s Congress yesterday approved, after three years of discussion, a project considered a priority by Rousseff’s government -- a law that will make it easier to combat money laundering.

(Dom Phillips is the Sao Paulo correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)


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Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net