Brazil's Spiraling Corruption Scandals Turn Farcical: Dom Phillips

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Could it be that Brazil’s Minister of Labor, Carlos Lupi, is only hanging onto his job because of the comedy value he brings?

Lupi has been in the spotlight for nearly a month, dodging corruption allegations -- the sixth minister in President Dilma Rousseff’s government to face such charges since she took office in January.

But he has yet to resign or be dismissed, even while the drama around him becomes increasingly farcical.

The story began, as corruption scandals in Brazil often do, with an expose in the weekly news magazine Veja. Lupi and his PDT party -- which is part of Rousseff’s ruling coalition -- were running a racket at the Ministry of Labor, the magazine alleged on Nov. 5:

A Veja report this week reveals that PDT chiefs led by the Minister of Labor, Carlos Lupi, transformed the organs of control into an instrument of extortion. According to reports by directors of NGOs, parliamentarians and civil servants, the scheme works as follows: First the ministry hires entities to give professional training courses, and then aides demand bribes of 5 percent to 15 percent to resolve disputes that they themselves created.

Three lawmakers from Lupi’s own party requested an investigation into the allegations. But Lupi wasn’t going down without a fight. A big, ebullient figure given to theatrical hand gestures, Lupi told news cameras Nov. 8 that he wasn’t going to resign -- nor was Rousseff about to sack him, as TV Globo had reported. He would only leave if hit by a bullet, “and it would have to be a heavy bullet, because I’m a really heavy guy,” he said.

He added that he “doubted” that Dilma would sack him, “because of the trust that she has in me.”

Two days later, keen to backtrack on what had been seen as an overly aggressive political performance, he apologized to the president and said: “President Dilma, I’m sorry. I love you.” His comments only generated more news. Veja even published a photo of Lupi kissing the president’s hand to illustrate its story.

Now Lupi had entered the realm of comedy. On Nov. 21, the popular satirical television show “CQC” was quick to take advantage. Reporter Felipe Andreoli wandered the corridors of Congress buttonholing politicians and asking impertinent questions about Lupi. One of his victims was Candido Vaccarezza, leader of Rousseff’s PT party in the Chamber of Deputies.

Andreoli: “Do you think he really loves Dilma, or does he just love the power that Dilma gives to him?”

Vaccarezza: “I think he has a form of expressing himself outside of the norm.”

Andreoli (with a cheeky smile): “Do you love Dilma?”

Vaccarezza: “I’m not going to ... I like Dilma as a person.”

Andreoli: “She’s nice.”

Vaccarezza: “I think she’s nice.”

Andreoli: “Want to send a kiss to her?”

By now a new protagonist had entered Lupi’s sitcom: Adair Meira, the head of a network of NGOs with Ministry of Labor contracts that are under investigation. On Nov. 16, Veja reported that Lupi had flown on a private jet -- arranged by Meira and in his company -- to visit the state of Maranhao in 2009.

Lupi denied it.

“I don’t have any relationship with, what is his name? Mr. Adair,” he said, jabbing at a piece of paper, as if Adair’s name was written on it. “I may have met him at some launch of an agreement. I don’t know where he lives. I never traveled on his or anybody else’s personal plane.”

Meira begged to differ. “I don’t want to say that the minister is omitting the truth. But I have enough evidence for him to remember,” Meira told TV Globo.

Then came the bombshell: a photograph of Lupi, descending the stairs of a King Air private plane he said he’d never taken, published on the site Grajau de Fato.

In case anyone still doubted that Lupi had lied, Veja published a video shot just after the plane had landed -- showing Lupi and Meira together in a crowd beside the jet.

This time, Lupi told the Senate, it was a lapse of memory. “I am human,” he said.

Senate opposition leader Alvaro Dias was scathing. “It would be more dignified on the part of Your Excellency if you asked for pardon for lying to your country,” he said.

A “remix” video entitled “Alvaro Dias vs. Lupi -- UFC in the National Congress” edited the exchange between Lupi and Dias as if it was an Ultimate Fighting Championship bout. The video is now on Dias’s blog.

Meanwhile the accusations have continued. The Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper recently charged that Lupi had been a “ghost employee” of the Congress between 2000 and 2006, when he had actually lived in Rio de Janeiro, not Brasilia. And on Nov. 30, Veja reported that aides to Lupi had demanded bribes to legalize new unions.

Still, Lupi hangs on. As the president of the PDT party -- which, as part of Rousseff’s coalition, must be kept happy with a ministry -- his job is probably safe until a ministerial shuffle planned for January. This is the reality of Brazilian politics.

In a blog on the Observador Politico site, political scientist Sergio Fausto wrote:

While society and the private sector modernize themselves, the political world remains entangled in outdated practices ... Carlos Lupi is only a minor character in a national drama. It would have been comical, if it weren’t tragic.

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

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