The depths of the institutional and ethical crisis facing Brazil have been laid bare by a new survey of the country's congress, which reveals more than a quarter of its members are being investigated or have already been charged with criminal activity.
In the legislature elected last October, 30 of the 81 senators and 130 of the lower house’s 513 deputies have cases before the supreme court, which due to Brazil’s system of parliamentary immunity has exclusive authority to prosecute and judge members of congress.
The survey conducted by the Congress in Focus website that monitors the legislature in Brasília showed that the accusations of criminal activity cut right across ideological and regional lines to include politicians of all major parties in both government and opposition.
The survey's publication comes as the congress is at the centre of a debate on whether to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, who faces accusations her 2010 and 2014 presidential campaigns were illicitly funded with money siphoned out of state-controlled oil company Petrobras.
Members of congress under investigation for criminal activity or already formally charged would nevertheless be allowed sit in judgment on the president, should a formal impeachment process be opened against her.
Renan Calheiros and Eduardo Cunha, presidents of the senate and lower house respectively and key figures in any eventual impeachment process, both face multiple accusations of criminal activity, including involvement in the Petrobras scandal.
"We have a congress whose reputation with the public is terrible and this impacts on its legitimacy," says Congress in Focus editor Sylvio Costa. "This is one of the advantages Dilma has. For all her errors in economic and political management those in line to succeed her [in the event of impeachment] are not well viewed."
$5 million bribe
and her vice-president have their mandates cancelled because of the Petrobras affair, Mr Cunha would become president, despite being accused of receiving a $5 million bribe to help companies win Petrobras contracts.
Other cases unearthed by Congress in Focus include vote buying, embezzlement, money laundering, tax evasion, forgery, corruption of the public administration, breaking public procurement laws, defrauding the health and pension systems, influence trafficking, invasion of indigenous reserves, use of slave labour and the formation of criminal gangs. The sums of money involved amount to billions of euro.
The survey includes Jair Bolsonaro, the most voted deputy in the state of Rio de Janeiro and a prominent advocate of military intervention to remove Ms Rousseff. He faces charges of incitement to rape after he told congresswoman Maria do Rosário on the floor of the lower house that he had not raped her only because she did not deserve it.
Mr Costa said the number of parliamentarians under investigation is likely to rise as cases against new members elected last year are sent to the supreme court. By the time the last legislature ended, Congress in Focus calculated around half of its members stood accused of criminal activity. Previous congresses included members accused of links with organised crime, involvement in drug trafficking and murder.
“We are now talking of a criminal political class,” said Márlon Reis, a judge who heads the Movement to Combat Electoral Corruption. “A significant number of our politicians openly commit crimes against the public administration as a strategy. Many now use politics as a means to increase their own personal wealth. The second motivation is that elections are now so expensive they are financial races and politicians practice corruption to irrigate their campaigns.”
Problem of impunity
Despite the investigation into the Petrobras affair and the conviction of prominent members of congress in the
congressional vote-buying scandal, impunity remains a grave problem in Brazil’s political system.
Of more than 500 parliamentarians investigated since the 1988 constitution came into force only 16 have been convicted. The first sentence handed down was in 2010. Only one member, Natan Donadon, is behind bars, serving 13 years for the theft of money from a state assembly. Four others are serving their sentences under house arrest.
In the past two years the supreme court archived at least 290 investigations and criminal charges against 167 parliamentarians. Of these 63 were shelved because the court had taken so long to consider them they exceeded the statute of limitations. The court has sat on a file from the public prosecution service containing multiple accusations against senate president Renan Calheiros since January 2013.
Congress in Focus contacted all the accused politicians. Most responded, universally denying wrongdoing with explanations that ranged from blaming innocent errors by subordinates to claims they were the victims of persecution by opponents.