When crusading anti-corruption judge Sérgio Moro accepted an invitation to become Brazil's justice minister last November it was widely viewed as a political coup for the then president-elect Jair Bolsonaro.
Now the most popular of his cabinet picks has presented Bolsonaro with the latest in a series of political emergencies that have marked the far-right leader's chaotic first six months in office. Revelations at the weekend relating to Moro's time overseeing the historic Car Wash graft investigation, which turned him into Brazil's most respected public figure, mean the new minister is facing the first full-blown crisis of his short political career.
According to leaks published on the Intercept website, when he was in command of the investigation the then judge used a private messaging app to allegedly direct and shape the progress of the case of federal prosecutors.
The minister has sought to downplay the revelations, saying he sees “nothing much” in them. Deltan Dallagnol, the prosecutor who co-ordinated the Car Wash investigation and who traded messages with Moro, portrayed the leaks – which were apparently the fruit of mobile phone hacking – as “a very grave attack” on Car Wash by its enemies.
President Bolsonaro has expressed his "unrestricted" confidence in his justice minister with whom he held talks on Tuesday before both sat beside each other at a ceremony during which Moro was one of a number of ministers to receive Brazil's Order of Naval Merit to commemorate the 154th anniversary of the Battle of Riachuelo. But the leaks and their contents have sparked a commotion in Brazil political and judicial spheres. In Brazil magistrates are prohibited from acting as prosecutors unlike in some other countries such as Italy, whose anti-Mafia investigations Mr Moro studied closely.
The leaks have provided new ammunition to his critics who have long claimed that Moro's anti-corruption crusade breached legal guarantees in order to achieve political goals, such as his conviction for corruption of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Lula was the frontrunner in last year’s presidential election until he was barred from running after Moro’s sentence was upheld by a higher court. Once Lula was removed Bolsonaro became the race’s new frontrunner and later its eventual winner.
Lula's defence says the leaks prove his conviction by Moro was a 'judicial farce'
"This is criminal behaviour. If 'the law really is for everyone' as they proclaim then the consequences will be grave," says lawyer Fernando Fernandes, a trenchant critic of the conduct of Moro and other anti-corruption magistrates in cases in which he has represented several high-profile defendants.
Already Lula’s defence says the leaks prove his conviction by Moro was a “judicial farce”, while Brazil’s powerful bar association is demanding the minister and Dallagnol, the prosecutor, step aside while the affair is investigated. The federal prosecution service has also opened an investigation into Dallagnol.
Legal experts say it is too soon to say whether Lula and others condemned by Moro will now be able to get their convictions annulled. Lula’s conviction has since been upheld by two higher court panels and he has also been sentenced in a second case by another judge in a case brought by Dallagnol’s team – and still faces trial in seven more.
Car Wash still enjoys overwhelming support among a public long-since fed up with the corruption of its political class. Moro was again the hero of recent street protests organised by government supporters and his poll ratings far outstrip those of Bolsonaro.
But the revelations have strengthened the argument of those who accused him of having been a partial judge with a personal animus towards Lula and his Workers Party. This charge has gained traction since his acceptance of a position in the Bolsonaro government even though Car Wash has won convictions against dozens of politicians from a range of political parties and has recovered the equivalent of hundreds of millions of euro stolen from public entities.
Last year when still a judge Moro was criticised for publishing part of the plea-bargain deal made by Lula's former finance minister, which damaged the campaign of Lula's substitute Fernando Haddad in the run-up to the first round of voting. After Bolsonaro was elected, his running mate revealed the winning campaign had been in contact with the judge about the possibility of him accepting a role in an eventual Bolsonaro administration.
This shows enormous opportunism because I am certain as a judge he would not have embraced this cause
Moro’s critics say this alleged political calculation has continued since he left the judiciary to become justice minister. His anti-crime package before congress has been heavily criticised for its proposal to weaken controls over the actions of Brazilian police when on duty.
This pleases congress’s bullet caucus of hardline law-and-order advocates allied with the president. But public security experts say the measure risks further increasing killings by what is already among the most lethal police forces in the world.
“This shows enormous opportunism because I am certain as a judge he would not have embraced this cause. He has a political project, whether it is to be governor or senator or president of the republic who knows?” says former justice minister Eugênio Aragão, a trenchant critic of his successor.
But now Moro could face a congressional inquiry into the Intercept leaks, leaving him exposed to attack by his many political enemies in the legislature who have not forgiven him for his zeal in exposing the corruption of Brazil’s political class.
It could also put at risk the declared plan of Bolsonaro to elevate him to the supreme court at the first opportunity, a nomination that must be approved by the senate. The crisis also risks further undermining the Bolsonaro administration’s fragile relationship with congress just as it seeks to get an ambitious but contentious pension reform voted through.
After four years on the offensive against Brazil’s political class, Moro now finds himself a politician on the defensive.