Corruption in Brazil: A healthier menu

SO RARELY has political corruption led to punishment in Brazil that there is an expression for the way scandals pe...
SO RARELY has political corruption led to punishment in Brazil that there is an expression for the way scandals peter out. They _end in pizza_, with roughly the same convivial implication as settling differences over a drink. But a particularly brazen scandal has just drawn to a surprisingly disagreeable close for some prominent wrongdoers. The supreme-court trial of the mensal__o (big monthly stipend), a scheme for buying votes in Brazil_s Congress that came to light in 2005, ended on December 17th. Of the 38 defendants, 25 were found guilty of charges including corruption, money-laundering and misuse of public funds. Many received stiff sentences and large fines.

The supreme court must still write its report on the trial, and hear appeals_though it is unlikely to change its mind. So in 2013 Brazilians should be treated to an unprecedented sight: well-connected politicos behind bars. Jos__ Dirceu, who served as chief of staff to the former president, Luiz In__cio Lula da Silva, was sentenced to almost 11 years; Del__bio Soares, former treasurer of the ruling Workers_ Party (PT), got almost nine. Under the penal code, at least part of such long sentences must be served in jail. The justices also decided that the three federal deputies found guilty will automatically lose their seats if and when those verdicts are confirmed.

Lula was not charged, and has always insisted he knew nothing of the scheme. But Marcos Val__rio, a former advertising man sentenced to 40 years, claims to have evidence that Lula knew what was going on, and that some of the dirty money paid his personal expenses. These allegations may be merely a desperate attempt by a condemned man to bargain down his jail term. The attorney-general characterised Mr Val__rio as a _player_, and said his claims should be treated with caution. But if he has significant new evidence the mensal__o may yet rumble on.

The trial, and its outcome, demonstrated the growing ability of police, prosecutors and courts to hold politicians to account. _The mensal__o is a striking symbol of this change,_ says Carlos Melo, a political scientist at Insper, a S__o Paulo business school. _But it started some time ago._ In recent years, Brazil has done better in the rankings of perceived corruption compiled by Transparency International, a Berlin-based watchdog. It is now the 69th-cleanest of 174 countries; in South America, only Chile and Uruguay are cleaner. But while its police, civil servants and judges compare well with those in the rest of the region, its politicians do not.

If the end of de facto impunity is not enough to encourage Brazil_s politicians to mend their ways, the ficha limpa (clean record) law has added another weapon to the judges_ anti-graft arsenal. Passed in 2010 after a public campaign, it bars from elected office anyone convicted of a wide range of offences, including vote-buying and illicit campaign-financing. October_s municipal elections, the first under the new rules, saw hundreds of candidates ruled ineligible; others, including some who were elected, may yet be barred.

Dilma Rousseff, the president, wants a similar rule for public servants. That should help her to stem one of the remaining causes of corruption: discretionary appointments to public office. Brazilian presidents have almost 25,000 positions in their gift, including senior jobs in regulatory agencies and state-controlled firms. In recent years, many of these have gone to the politically well-connected or to the nominees of government allies.

Lula now faces questions about such practices when he was in power. On December 14th the public prosecutor_s office said it was investigating claims of bribery and influence-peddling involving 24 people, including Rosemary de Noronha, a former bank teller who has been close to Lula since before he was president. In 2005 he made her head of a new _presidential office_ in S__o Paulo. Investigators allege that during this time she took bribes to arrange forged permits for construction and transport projects with accomplices in regulatory agencies.

Back in 1992 Brazil_s Congress impeached a president for corruption. But it is now prosecutors, the courts and the media that lead the fight to clean up public life. A congressional inquiry into the political ties of Carlinhos Cachoeira, who allegedly runs an illegal gambling business, illustrates the point. It failed to agree on a report by its end of year deadline, with its members protecting their allies and splitting along party lines. _This pizza was bigger than the oven,_ one politician lamented. Despite the mensal__o verdicts, it has not disappeared from the menu altogether.

By The Economist

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