Brazil’s prosecutors broke the world’s biggest corruption scandal wide open with the help of one man.
Joesley Batista, a billionaire who with his brother owns the world’s largest meatpacker, JBS, admitted in May to paying out more than $192 million in bribes to roughly 1,900 politicians in exchange for favors for his company.
He also handed over an audio recording of a March conversation he had with President Michel Temer, who appears to approve the payment of hush money to Eduardo Cunha, a former congressman who was impeached and is now in prison for corruption, money laundering and tax evasion.
In return for the information, prosecutors allowed Batista and his brother, Wesley, to avoid jail time and each pay fines of $35 million, along with a $3.3-billion fine paid by their holding company J&F.
But it turns out Batista didn’t tell them everything.
The attorney general’s office said late Monday that it received an audio file last week that Batista accidentally attached to an email on an unrelated matter.
The recording, which has been leaked to the press, was of a four-hour conversation between Batista and another J&F executive, Ricardo Saud, about their relationship with former prosecutor Marcelo Miller.
Batista insinuates that he got the plea deal by arranging Miller’s current employment, a position he took in April at a law firm used by the meatpacking company after leaving the attorney general’s office, where he had been a key advisor to Atty. Gen. Rodrigo Janot.
“We’re the jewel in their crown,” Batista can be heard saying in the recording. “We’re going to come out of this as everybody’s friends, and we’re not going to be arrested.”
But Batista’s slip up in sending the recording has upended the deal.
Janot announced he was opening an investigation into the questions raised by the recording. He said Joesley Batista, Saud and J&F attorney Francisco de Assis could lose their immunity, but that the evidence they already handed over would remain in play.
It is unclear how the recording might affect the president, who is under investigation on suspicion of approving the payment of hush money.
If he is charged — as local media are suggesting will happen soon — Congress would have to vote on whether to send the case to the Supreme Court for trial. Congress, which is controlled by Temer’s Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, could use the latest development to cast doubt on the credibility of Batista’s other testimony.
Last month Congress considered another case against Temer — based on another recording turned over by Batista — and voted 263-227 against impeaching him and holding a trial.
In that recording, the president appeared to indicate that one of his former aides, Rodrigo Rocha Loures, was available to handle any dealings between the meatpacking company and the government.
Loures, who the attorney general has said was the middleman for negotiations and bribes between Batista and Temer, was arrested in June after federal police released a video that authorities said showed him carrying a suitcase containing $154,000.
The corruption investigation was launched in March 2014 to look into allegations that Brazil’s biggest construction firms were overcharging state oil company Petrobras for building contracts, allowing directors to skim money off the top as payment for awarding them the contracts. The investigation became known as Lava Jato, or Car Wash.
Brazil construction giant Odebrecht has confessed to paying more than $30 million in bribes to Petrobras officials to secure contracts with the oil company. Its chief executive, Marcelo Odebrecht, is serving a 19-year sentence for corruption, and the company was ordered to pay a fine of $3.5 billion.
The highest profile politician involved in the widespread corruption scheme is former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was convicted in July of accepting $1.2 million in bribes from contractor OAS to help the company win contracts with Petrobras.
Prosecutors said he used the money to purchase and renovate a luxury penthouse in the seaside town of Guaruja.
The former president is free as the decision is being appealed. He faces similar charges in five other cases.
Langlois is a special correspondent