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More than half the lawmakers impeaching Brazil’s president have been either convicted or investigated themselves

Dilma Rousseff smiling in the Senate
Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino
“Really? These clowns are going to impeach me?”
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

After months of hearings in both houses of congress, Brazil’s senate is expected to vote to impeach president Dilma Rousseff tomorrow (Aug. 31). She’s accused of using accounting gimmicks to conceal the size of the country’s deficit, so she could pump up social spending to win-re-election in 2014. But even some senators have complained about the pot calling the kettle black.

In all, 45 of 81 senators (Editor’s note: most links in this story are in Portuguese) have either been convicted of a serious offense—the crimes include money laundering, embezzlement, and vote buying—or are being investigated for one, according to Transparency Brazil, a watch-dog group.

Among them is senate leader Renan Calheiros, who is named as a suspect in eight investigations related to a massive bribery and kickback scandal in Brazil’s national oil company, Petrobras. Calheiros resigned from an earlier stint as senate president in 2007, amid allegations that a former mistress was receiving child-support payments funneled through a lobbyist. Then there was “Hairgate”: Calheiros faces an administrative misconduct investigation for using a Brazilian air force jet to transport him to a clinic in northeastern Brazil for hair transplant surgery in 2013.

In the lower house of congress, which has already voted for impeachment, 273 of 513 members are either being investigated or have already been convicted, Transparency found. Some of the cases in the lower house involve even more serious crimes, including forced labor, vehicular homicide, and torture.

Rousseff herself isn’t accused of corruption, though her Workers’ Party is involved in myriad scandals. But she and her supporters have used the legislators’ legal indiscretions to argue that she’s the victim of a coup to remove her from power.

Why is Brazil’s politics so rotten? Much has to do with structural flaws in the political system, as Eduardo Mello and Mattias Spektor recently summarized (paywall) in Foreign Affairs. These flaws include a president with sweeping powers, a large number of fickle political parties, and few constraints on individual lawmakers’ party discipline, all of which means they have overwhelming incentives to buy and sell political favors. Legislators are also generally immune from prosecution in lower courts, so cases against them are heard by the overburdened supreme federal court. “There are a nearly endless series of appeals and cases that never seem to get resolved,” says Juliana Sakai, an investigator for Transparency Brazil.

The result, Spektor and Mello explain, is inefficient government spending, extensive pork-barreling, and widespread corruption. Below are some of the more unusual cases involving senators.

  • Romero Juca, the senate’s second vice president, has been targeted by prosecutors for alleged Petrobras-related money laundering and racketeering. He’s also under investigation for alleged electoral crimes. In one case, a Juca campaign worker threw 100,000 reais ($30,000) out the window of his car while being pursued by police. Prosecutors think the money was to be used for buying votes.
  • Fernando Collor de Mello is a former president who resigned in 1992 as the senate was in the process of impeaching him for alleged influence peddling. After being barred from public office for eight years (though acquitted of criminal charges), he became a senator himself in 2007. Last year, though, a prosecutor alleged he had accepted 26 million reais in bribes in the Petrobras scandal.  Authorities seized Collor’s Ferrari, Lamborghini, Bentley, and a Range Rover, but magnanimously returned the cars after Collor’s lawyers argued they required special care that they couldn’t get in a police holding lot. In an ironic twist, Collor voted in favor of putting Rousseff on trial in May.
  • Senator Jader Barbalho was hounded by investigators for more than a decade beginning in 2002, for several big bribery and fraud cases involving government banks and agencies in the Amazon.  But in Brazil, the statute of limitations is cut in half on defendants who reach their 70th birthdays. So when Barbalho turned 70 in 2014, half a dozen cases against him were closed.
  • The senator with the longest rap sheet is Dario Berger, who has 28 cases against him by Transparency’s count, involving irregularities in public contracts and political campaigns, among other offenses. That hasn’t stopped Berger from speaking out loudly in favor of impeaching Rousseff.  “No one, absolutely no one, is above the law,” he said recently. “Especially someone who should give an example.”

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