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Brazil’s Ex-President Cleared of Corruption : Latin America: Judges find Collor and his campaign treasurer not guilty of using power to gain kickbacks.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two years after he was impeached by Congress and left office in disgrace, former Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello was cleared by the Supreme Court on Monday of corruption charges in a case the court called weak and pocked with errors.

The panel of eight judges ruled 5-3 that Atty. Gen. Aristides Junqueira failed to show proof that Collor and his former campaign treasurer, Paulo Cesar Farias, used their power to get kickbacks from business leaders and politicians seeking official favors.

The verdict came after a three-day trial--which none of the defendants attended--in Brasilia, the nation’s capital.

Collor, Farias and seven others were charged with “passive corruption,” which in Brazilian law means receipt of illicit gains or “undue” advantages while in public office. A guilty verdict could have brought Collor up to eight years in prison.

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Collor’s attorney, Evaristo de Moraes, hailed the judges’ finding as a “double victory for democracy.” The case, he said, showed not only that “a president can be brought to the defendant’s chair” but also that he can receive a fair trial.

But the ruling was a bitter one for those who poured into the streets two years ago to demand Collor’s ouster and lobby for a cleanup of Brazilian politics. “This is one of the greatest political, judicial and ethical absurdities this country has ever seen,” said Herbert de Souza, a sociologist whose Movement for Ethics in Politics led street protests against Collor.

At the trial, Junqueira argued that Collor and Farias had solicited bribes from business leaders and then laundered the money through “ghost” companies and bank accounts.

He charged that Farias, acting on Collor’s behalf, pocketed $295,000 from a construction magnate as a pay-back for having him named secretary of transportation, and that Farias used his influence to win an illegal $1.1-million campaign contribution from Mercedes-Benz for a candidate friendly to Collor. Junqueira also said Farias invoked Collor’s name to pressure the state oil company, Petrobras, into granting a loan on unusually favorable terms to an airline company, Vasp, owned by a close friend and former business partner.

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However, the judges argued that in these and other cases the prosecution either failed to document its claims or backed them with inadmissible evidence, such as computer files seized illegally from Farias’ home and tape recordings discarded as hearsay.

The verdict marked another turn of fortune for Collor, the onetime governor of a backwater state who rose to the center of the political stage by vowing to sweep crooked politicians from power. His crusade resonated deeply in a country where political corruption has traditionally gone unpunished and white-collar citizens rarely go to jail.

Collor, now 45, rode that wave of indignation to power in 1990, becoming Brazil’s first popularly elected president in nearly 30 years. The military dominated Brazilian politics from 1964 to 1985 and cast its shadow over government until general elections were called in 1989.

But two years after taking office, the polished Collor, who wore Hermes ties and always had a bon mot for the TV cameras, saw the country turn against him as he was tarred in a massive political scandal.

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A congressional panel concluded that Collor was the behind-the-curtains beneficiary of a massive system of corruption, branded the “P. C. scheme” after its alleged mastermind, P. C. Farias. Congress charged that the P. C. scheme squeezed at least $100 million in kickbacks, “commissions” and favors from business leaders, industrialists and politicians.

Collor was alleged to have received a car, fancy clothes for his wife and home improvements worth about $4.7 million. Collor’s attorneys claimed that unspent campaign funds paid for those things.

Based on the congressional findings, the lower house in late 1992 moved, with only three dissenting votes, to impeach him and send him to trial in the Senate.

Collor resigned just as the Senate began deliberations, but the upper house found him guilty of breaching the trust of office and stripped him of the right to seek political office again until the year 2001. Monday’s Supreme Court acquittal will not reverse the political ban.

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Farias fled the country but was spotted in Thailand and deported to Brazil, where he was indicted and jailed awaiting trial on 51 counts ranging from tax evasion to influence peddling. He still faces several criminal charges, including bribery and coercion of witnesses.

Junqueira vowed to “battle on to make sure the rich and not only the poor are brought to justice.”


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