Brazil scandals need scorecard

Special to The Times

It was the president’s brother on the line, asking for cash.

“Hey, get me two grand,” Genival Inacio da Silva demanded of an alleged gambling kingpin, according to transcripts of wiretaps published here this month.

The telephone intercepts were part of a federal police operation known as Checkmate, which has led to the arrests of dozens of people in a slot-machine-distribution scam.

Checkmate is just the latest in a chain of theatrically named scandals that have come to dominate Brazilian headlines and tarnish the image of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, sometimes called the Teflon president because of his aptitude in shaking off scandal.


Lula won a landslide reelection last year but not before being forced into a second round of voting, in part because of scandals that had sparked talk of impeachment.

Lula, like most Brazilian politicians, came to office pledging to crack down on deep-rooted corruption. That goal has proved a Sisyphean task, however, in a nation where graft appears ingrained in the political system, costing taxpayers billions annually in bid-rigging and other crooked practices.

Since Lula took office in 2003, scandals with labels such as Hurricane, Anaconda, Vampire and Dossier-Gate have felled hundreds of public servants -- judges, members of Congress, police commanders and four Cabinet members, most recently Mines and Energy Minister Silas Rondeau. He resigned last month in the far-ranging Operation Razor, which focuses on public-works payoffs.

Rondeau allegedly accepted a $50,000 bribe from a construction firm hired to provide electricity to rural areas in the “Lights for Everyone” initiative, a favorite of Lula, Brazil’s first working-class president. Authorities say officials received cash and gifts to steer contracts for projects that were overcharged or never built.

Even the No. 2 federal cop and sting-master, Zulmar Pimentel, who is credited with coining some of the catchy monikers for anti-corruption inquiries, was suspended last month when accusations surfaced that he was tipping off rogue underlings.

The scandals come and go like the latest films. Some cases intersect: Checkmate, a gambling inquiry, turned into an investigation of Lula’s elder brother for alleged influence-peddling.

Representatives of the president’s brother deny any wrongdoing, saying he was seeking a “loan” from the alleged gambling boss.

Many experts say institutional shortcomings such as rampant patronage, lack of accountability and oversight, and federal dominance in Brazilian affairs help fuel the crisis.

“In Brazil we have an empire-like federation,” said Roberto Romano, a professor of ethics at the State University of Campinas. “It concentrates too much power in the executive and ignores responsibilities toward states and municipalities.”

Connoisseurs of Brazil’s corruption chronicles revel in telenovela-like juicy details, such as the disbursements that Senate President Renan Calheiros, a key Lula ally, allegedly accepted from a builder to help a former mistress care for the senator’s out-of-wedlock daughter. A humiliated Calheiros took the floor of the Senate last month and denied accepting bribes, though he acknowledged the furtive liaison.

Another case featured a “party house” in the city of Ribeirao Preto where corrupt lawmakers allegedly consorted with call girls. Powerful Finance Minister Antonio Palocci fell in April 2006 after a groundskeeper confirmed that he was a habitue.

And then there was the “Big Monthly,” which centered on monthly cash-for-votes payouts and included the spectacle of a political aide detained at an airport with $200,000 stuffed in his underpants and luggage.

Among the most notorious episodes was last year’s “Bloodsuckers” affair. Dozens of members of Congress were implicated in kickbacks linked to the purchase of overpriced ambulances.

With each scandal, tapped telephone conversations, clandestine video, bank-account data and search-warrant inventories are leaked to the media.

But even if scandal-scarred politicians lose office, an inefficient judicial system ensures that most avoid prison. A prosecutor, Mario Lucio Avelar, explained to O Globo newspaper: “To stay in jail in Brazil, you must rape, murder, confess -- and have a bad lawyer.”

Lula says the onslaught of official misdeeds reflects enhanced police detection, not more frequent transgressions. No scandal has touched him personally.

“Never before in the history of this country has corruption been fought so much,” said the president, still enjoying high approval ratings as minimal inflation and bolstered social subsidies keep a lid on unrest.

But graft could torpedo Lula’s second-term goals. The fall of political allies threatens to enfeeble the president’s governing alliance. Public-works fraud may undercut Lula’s infrastructure-improvement blueprint, meant to stimulate sluggish growth.

“It’s true that more corruption is being found,” concluded David Fleischer, a political scientist at Brasilia University. “But it’s also true that there’s more corruption to be found.”

McDonnell is a Times staff writer and Soares a special correspondent.