“Who is on the list?” The question has obsessed Brazilian politicians for months as the country awaited the latest, greatest set of targets in the country’s burgeoning Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) corruption investigation.
The answer, apparently leaked this week by the attorney general, Rodrigo Janot, or his staff, is almost everyone who has had any power over the past 10 to 20 years – with the mysterious exception of President Michel Temer.
But by accusing nearly the entire political class, the investigation may well become weaker as well as more sweeping.
Five members of the cabinet, two former presidents – Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff – the current and former heads of both houses of Congress and at least two former opposition leaders – Aécio Neves and José Serra – are among the 83 politicians whose accusations were referred on Tuesday to the supreme court, according to local media.
They, along with dozens of regional lawmakers, were denounced in what has been dubbed the “end-of-the-world plea bargain” by senior directors of Odebrecht, Latin America’s the biggest construction company, which has been accused of suborning officials across the continent.
The testimonies, which are still supposed to be under judicial seal, are said to reveal how public contracts for dams, bridges, roads and power plants were hugely inflated so that kickbacks could be paid to senior figures in local and central governments.
Janot sent 83 cases to the top court and 211 to lower courts. This is a higher number of indictments than were made in relation to the oil company Petrobras during earlier stages of the three-year investigation. Some governors and senators, such as Romero Jucá and Renan Calheiros, have been accused in both cases.
On the face of it, the denunciations represent another blow to the government of Temer, who has already lost eight ministers – mostly to scandal – since he plotted the impeachment of his running mate Rousseff last year.
The president has not been charged, though he is implicated in numerous testimonies and every other senior leader of his Brazilian Democratic Movement party is reportedly on the list, along with five more members of his cabinet. Temer has said they will be asked to resign only if they are formally charged.
However, there are fears that Operation Car Wash has been steadily undermined since Rousseff was pushed out of office by many of those it targeted. The investigation’s main supporter in the supreme court, Justice Teori Zavascki, died in a mysterious plane crash in January. He has since been replaced by a Temer aide, the former justice minister Alexandre de Moraes.
Politicians are also pushing back in other ways. Calheiros, the former head of the Senate, went unpunished after refusing a supreme court judge’s order to stand down while he was being investigated. Congressmen are also trying to ban plea bargains and to pass an amnesty law that would allow many of them to evade punishment.
Fernando Limongi, a social science professor at the University of São Paulo, said Janot’s list proved that corruption was endemic and involved all parties. But he said the widening of the investigation could help those who want to destroy it by giving them strength in numbers.
“Since almost all of the top leaders are involved, this might even end up alleviating the pressure on the Temer government. All the politicians are now in the same boat,” he said. “What will happen is that the political class as a whole will look for a way out.”
Sylvio Costa, editor of the watchdog organisation Congresso em Foco (Congress in Focus), said the slow-moving judiciary would be jammed up by the mass request for investigations, so very few politicians will actually end up being punished.
“A brutal game is being played: on one side the main parties – both the opposition and the government – are trying to make a deal that will preserve top politicians such as Lula and Aécio. And on the other side there is a frustrated society, which wants this investigation to continue even though it does not have much strength.”
He said much would depend on the public reaction.
“Some politicians will be punished. Some kind of change will happen, but not with the scope or depth that the people who wanted the impeachment of Dilma, and those who want honesty and ethics in politics, wanted.”