Criticism Mounts Over Brazil's Well-Paid 'Maharajahs'

Times Staff Writer

Brazil's "maharajahs" are under fire.

The maharajahs, who get their nickname from the rich princes of old India, are the overpaid bureaucrats that taxpayers love to hate. Every country has them.

In Brazil, thousands of them make thousands of dollars a month, in regal contrast to the $100 or less earned monthly by two-thirds of all Brazilian workers.

The latest uproar over the maharajahs has been raised by the Brazilian press, and some politicians.

"The Plague of the Maharajahs," was the headline on the cover story of a recent edition of Veja, Brazil's leading news magazine.

The topic naturally has captured the interest of just about everybody: wage-earners, taxpayers, bureaucrats and fat cats. Lists of maharajahs and their salaries have been published, outrage has been vented, new laws have been proposed and court proceedings have been started.

Last month, President Jose Sarney signed a decree with a clause aimed at the maharajahs, limiting pay for federal employees to a total of $3,300 a month.

Few Brazilians seem to expect reforms that will do away with all the maharajahs. Some analysts even argue that princely paychecks are necessary to keep the government system greased. But for many Brazilians, there is at least some immediate satisfaction in seeing the maharajahs sweat in the heat of publicity.

If nothing else, the maharajah scandal has served to focus attention on the glaring duality of today's Brazilian society. One Brazil has the non-Communist world's eighth-largest economy, an industrial dynamo with an elite caste of affluent executives and professionals at the controls. The other Brazil is an underdeveloped country with an underclass of poorly paid and poorly educated masses.

Last month, under pressure from the press, the government of Sao Paulo state released a list of 1,689 officials who receive $3,000 a month or more. At the top of the list was Helio Cardoso Fernandes, a retired police colonel whose monthly pension amounts to more than $17,000. The newspaper Jornal do Brasil pointed out that Fernandes' income is 373 times Brazil's legal minimum salary of $47 a month and 80 times the starting salary for a Sao Paulo policeman, $219 a month.

Seventy-eight other Sao Paulo police officers receive between $6,000 and $10,000 a month.

Sao Paulo Gov. Orestes Quercia makes a modest $530 a month, but four members of his Cabinet are paid more than $5,500 monthly. One of them, Paulo Frontini, receives $9,400 in pensions from past government posts and his current salary.

Such double-dipping is common among the maharajahs. Frontini, a former state's attorney, is secretary for consumer protection.

Gov. Quercia has presented a bill to the state legislature that would put a cap on official salaries and pensions. And a special legislative commission has been formed to investigate the incomes of maharajahs.

How tough the legislature will be came into question recently with publication of a list of 102 legislative employees who each make more than $3,000 a month. At the top of that list was Andyara Sproesser, a pensioner who is currently employed as a legislative "adviser," making a combined monthly total of more than $11,000.

Maharajahs take advantage of numerous obscure laws allowing them to accumulate salaries, pensions, special pay differentials and other compensations.

"The law that permits those earnings is wrong," Gov. Quercia said recently. But he added that he was unable to keep officials from taking advantage.

"They even have the obligation, to themselves and to their families, to demand their rights under the law," he said.

Another governor, Fernando Collor of Alagoas state, does not see it that way.

After taking office in March, Collor sharply reduced the salaries of 271 maharajahs. He then petitioned the Federal Supreme Court to invalidate several Alagoas laws that give special pay benefits to state employes.

The Supreme Court temporarily suspended the laws pending final outcome of the cases.

Since Collor took his tough stance in March, "maharajahs" have been discovered throughout Brazil, in national, state and local government positions.

Fernando Gasparian, a member of the National Constituent Assembly, has proposed a limit on public servants' pay as part of the new constitution being written by the assembly.

But Mauricio Padua, another assembly member, predicts that dethroning the maharajahs will not be easy.

"The same part of the political class that uses them to maintain their constituencies prevents them from being removed," Padua said.

And one danger in eliminating maharajahs is losing highly competent public servants to the private sector.

"There exist in the machinery of state a body of servants who should be paid according to their accumulated knowledge or their undeniable technical qualifications--otherwise these professionals will inexorably be taken by private enterprise," said an editorial in the newspaper Folhade Sao Paulo.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World