Brazilian police arrest ex-cabinet chief over corruption

High-profile politican is latest focus of oil company Petrobas bribery probe

José Dirceu, who was detained  yesterday morning at his home in Brasília. Photograph: Nacho Doce/Reuters

José Dirceu, who was detained yesterday morning at his home in Brasília. Photograph: Nacho Doce/Reuters


Police in Brazil have arrested one of the founders of the ruling Workers’ Party, accusing him of being the mastermind behind the massive corruption scheme uncovered in state-controlled oil giant Petrobras.

José Dirceu was detained on Monday morning at his home in Brasília where he is serving out under house arrest the remainder of the sentence for his role in the earlier mensalão vote-buying scandal.

His detention is the most high-profile yet in 17 months of investigations into Petrobras and another blow to President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor and political patron Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, who as well as the scandal are battling a deepening recession and record levels of unpopularity.

A former Marxist guerrilla, Mr Dirceu founded the Workers’ Party with Lula in 1980 and served as his powerful cabinet chief during Lula’s first term as president. Despite being toppled by the mensalão scandal in 2005 he retains enormous influence within the party he helped set up.

Lucrative contracts

“We have arrived at one of the leaders, who instituted the scheme, who allowed it to exist and who benefited from it,” said prosecutor Carlos Fernando Lima, detailing the motives for the arrest.

Potentially most damaging for the Workers’ Party is the prosecutors’ belief that Mr Dirceu remained in command of the corruption scheme inside Petrobras even after he was denounced in the mensalão case.

When details of the mensalão case emerged Lula asked forgiveness of the Brazilian people and promised to put an end to such practices. But the investigation into wrongdoing at Petrobras has revealed the existence of a well organised criminal enterprise involving politicians, their appointees in Petrobras and the driller’s biggest suppliers to siphon billions out of Brazil’s largest company.

Convictions have already been secured against several former senior Petrobras employees and executives from companies that supplied it.

‘Expiatory goat’

Mr Dirceu’s lawyer said all monies his client had received were fees earned by the consulting practice he maintained since being forced to leave government in 2005. Roberto Podval said his client was the “expiatory goat” and that the judge who ordered his client’s detention was responding to “popular pressure”.

Mr Dirceu’s arrest comes just days before Ms Rousseff is scheduled to give a major party political broadcast on Thursday night to try to counter the flood of negative news that has engulfed her administration in recent months, leading to calls for her impeachment.

But her appearance is now likely to be overshadowed by a panelaço – the banging of pots and pans in protest – being organised on social media which has gathered momentum. Analysts also warn that the Workers’ Party’s latest problems could boost anti-government protests called for August 16th.