Brazilian politicians still feel the heat from Petrobras scandal

From the president on down, Brasília’s political elite dangle as federal judges circle

One of the arguments against the impeachment of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff was that the campaign was part of an effort by her corrupt former allies to shut down the explosive investigation into wrongdoing at state oil giant Petrobras.

On that point, Rousseff’s supporters were not completely wrong.

Just 11 days after she was suspended from office, new president Michel Temer lost one of his closest allies, planning minister Romero Jucá, after a recording emerged in which Jucá said it was necessary to remove Rousseff "in order to stanch the bloodletting" caused by the investigation.

Jucá was one of a clutch of post-Rousseff casualties from the scandal, and the bloodletting continues, disproving fears that a change of administration would end the investigation.


The noises from Brasília indicate a political class terrified that federal judge Sérgio Moro could yet topple Temer from the presidency he only formally inherited in August, and lay waste to the congress.

This increasing nervousness was on full display last month when another federal judge ordered the arrest of four members of the senate’s own internal police force. These were accused of obstructing the Petrobras probe by using anti-surveillance equipment to sweep the offices and homes of several leading politicians for listening devices.

The politicians believed Moro’s investigators were eavesdropping on them. According to one of the senate officers arrested, devices were found and deactivated.

Sweep approver

The arrest of members of his own police force provoked an outburst from the senate president, Renan Calheiros, who approved the sweeps. He slandered the judge who ordered the arrests and the justice minister responsible for the federal police who carried them out.

This earned Calheiros a rebuke from the head of the supreme court, which is considering various corruption allegations against him, some stretching back a decade.

In Brasília, the speculation is that the senate president is increasingly worried that he could soon be led off to jail by the federal police, much as the former head of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha, was last month.

Another explanation for Calheiros’s tantrum was fear that the anti-surveillance equipment seized would reveal his own illegal spying activities.

Temer was able to prevent the incident turning into a full-blown clash between the other two constitutional powers and a level of decorum has been restored for now.

Still, there are darker storm clouds looming on the horizon, and for Brasília none more threatening than the plea-bargain testimony that executives from Odebrecht, Brazil’s biggest construction conglomerate are negotiating with prosecutors on the Petrobras probe.

Prosecutors have already uncovered reams of evidence showing that Odebrecht not only showered Brazil’s political class with bribes in order to win bloated public contracts, but that the outlay was so big it maintained a secret corporate department to manage the payments. It even bought a bank in the Caribbean to facilitate the distribution of so much illicit cash.

In order to shorten prison sentences and save the company from ruin, the executives, headed by their jailed boss, Marcelo Odebrecht, are, according to leaks, readying to implicate about 150 serving members of both houses of congress and most of the country's state governors as well as a chunk of the cabinet and – for good measure – Temer himself.

Machine gun power

As well as speculation about who would take over from the new president should he fall, there is plenty of talk about whether Brazil’s rotten political system can survive such a bombshell. Former president José Sarney (one of the politicians who asked for his residence to be swept for bugs) was not exaggerating when he compared the destructive power of the potential plea-bargain agreement to a “100-calibre machine gun”.

Any grim satisfaction that Rousseff's Workers Party might take in the legal problems of those who ousted her is tempered by the knowledge that no politician was closer to Odebrecht than former Workers Party president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Marcelo Odebrecht’s plea-bargain deal – if accepted by the courts – will likely only add to Lula’s ever-expanding legal woes. Increasingly, it looks like a matter of when, not if, he is marched off to the prison.

Recent actions by his own legal team implicitly acknowledge this. They have filed a petition with the UN’s human rights committee accusing Moro and federal prosecutors of “abuse of power” in investigating Lula and his family’s murky financial affairs. It appears an attempt to portray their client’s eventual arrest as the fruit of judicial persecution.

Unfortunately for Lula and the rest of the mob in Brasília, most Brazilians today are cheering on their judges as they persecute, prosecute – call it what you will – their politicians.