Brazilian Supreme Court justice, who oversaw corruption case, is killed in plane crash

The chief justice of Brazil’s Supreme Court, who was presiding over the sweeping corruption case that ensnarled politicians and movers and shakers from across the country, died Thursday when the small plane he was traveling in crashed off the coast of Rio de Janeiro state.

Teori Zavascki, 68, was initially confirmed as appearing on the passenger list of the Hawker Beechcraft King Air C90, but officials would not say whether he was among the three who were pulled from the debris.

Before the confirmation of the judge’s death, one of his sons, Francisco Prehn Zavascki, wrote on Facebook, “Please pray for a miracle!” 

Shortly after, the son posted again, confirming that his father had died in the crash and thanking all those who had written to him for their support.

Zavascki was known for being discrete and modest despite being at the center of Brazil’s biggest political scandal and often appearing in the news. Dozens of politicians, including President Michel Temer and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, have been implicated in the wide-ranging corruption case code-named Lava Jato, or Car Wash.

The cause of the crash has not been determined, but soon Brazilians began wondering whether it was an accident.

Authorities are still searching the water where the plane came down and are trying to recover what is left of the aircraft, which crashed near Paraty while traveling from Sao Paulo to Angra dos Reis. 

Temer declared three days of national mourning, calling it a “modest tribute to someone who has served the judiciary, the courts and the Brazilian people so well.”

Zavascki had recently been reviewing evidence in the Lava Jato case provided by senior executives at the construction firm Odebrecht. That review was expected to lead to several more arrests of high-ranking politicians and other powerful leaders in Brazil’s business world. Those arrests are now expected to be delayed while a decision on Zavascki’s replacement is made.

Odebrecht’s 77 executives — including Chief Executive Marcelo Odebrecht, who has already been sentenced to over 19 years in prison for his involvement in the billion-dollar corruption scheme — agreed in December to a plea deal that would allow the construction firm to continue doing business in the public sector, as well as to receive loans from financial institutions. In return, Odebrecht officials will offer testimony and pay a fine of $2.1 billion.

The timing of Zavascki’s death has already come under scrutiny and raised questions of the possibility of foul play.

The president of the Assn. of Federal Judges, Roberto Veloso, called for an investigation into the circumstances of the justice’s death, saying that it is particularly important because of his responsibilities related to the Lava Jato case.

Marcio Anselmo, head of the federal police investigation into the corruption scheme in the city of Curitiba, also demanded the cause of the plane crash be investigated in a post on Facebook, which has since been deleted.

Luciana Genro, founder and leader of Brazil’s far-left Socialism and Liberty Party, called the fact that Temer would be the one to name Zavascki’s replacement as the head of the Lava Jato investigation “very suspicious.”

The scheme uncovered by Lava Jato is said to be the biggest the country has ever seen, with billions of dollars in bribes allegedly paid to executives at state-controlled oil giant Petrobras in exchange for awarding contracts to construction firms, including Odebrecht, at inflated prices.

The investigation has led to the impeachment and arrest of Eduardo Cunha, the former speaker of the lower house in Congress, and was the trigger of Brazil’s political crisis, which led to the impeachment last year of former President Dilma Rousseff.

Although Rousseff was not directly implicated in the scandal, many suspect she was dismissed for political reasons related to Lava Jato; senators alluded to the scandal several times during the final vote that led to her ouster. Rousseff, however, was officially dismissed for allegedly manipulating the country’s budget, making changes to three supplementary credit decrees without approval from Congress and using money from state banks to conceal the budget’s deficit before her reelection campaign in 2014.

Zavascki was appointed to the Supreme Court by Rousseff in November 2012. Since his death, he has been lauded for his dedication to the law and determination to seek justice. Before being named a Supreme Court justice, he presided over the Superior Court Tribunal for nine years.

Langlois is a special correspondent.

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UPDATES:

5:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional context and background on the Lava Jato corruption scandal.

This article was originally published at 12:25 p.m.

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