Brazil faces international pressure following moves to weaken corruption powers

12 July 2017 5:24pm

11 July 2017. By Martin Coyle & Rodrigo Russo.

Concerns that Brazil is weakening bribery laws and undermining a national racketeering investigation may prompt a high-profile visit from an international anticorruption group, MLex has learned.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's working group on bribery is concerned about legislative proposals aimed at curbing the ability of prosecutors and judges to carry out corruption probes — which frequently target politicians.

Currently at the lower house of Brazil's Congress after being approved by the Senate in April, the so-called "abuse of power" bill creates punishments for prosecutors showing partiality against those they investigate, for example. Senators and prosecutors have criticized the vagueness of conducts described in the bill.

Concern at the OECD group has deepened following a move last week to shut down the dedicated federal police task force investigating "Lava Jato" ("Car Wash"), the largest corruption scandal in the country's history.

After implicating dozens of high-level politicians in bribery-related crimes, including former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the corruption investigations have reached as far as current president Michel Temer.

Temer was last month charged by the federal prosecutor-general with accepting a $150,000 bribe from the meatpacking conglomerate JBS.

Political support 

The president has denied any wrongdoing, but he more than ever needs the support of lawmakers. Under Brazilian laws, a president holding office can be tried by the Supreme Court, but only if the lawsuit has been authorized by two-thirds of the lower house of the Congress.

Although highly unpopular with the public, measures to weaken corruption investigations could be a valuable tool to obtain the support of politicians currently targeted by probes.

As soon as he was implicated in the corruption scheme in May, president Temer replaced the justice minister, who supervises the federal police. Since then, rumors have emerged about a change in the agency's command.

The dismantling of the Lava Jato task force came from the same director who has been leading the federal police since the very beginning of the corruption investigations.

The decision was announced last week as a bureaucratic reshuffling designed to make the federal police's main anticorruption division more efficient — a version hotly disputed by prosecutors working on the case and by the police officers' association.

In a statement, Lava Jato prosecutors said the decision was "a clear setback" for the ongoing investigative efforts.

"The distribution of investigations to a larger number of officers and the lack of exclusivity for Lava Jato harm the specialization of the activities, the development of a global vision of the case and the findings of interconnections amongst hundreds of defendants," they said.

The National Federation of Federal Police Officers echoed this assessment, saying: "This format allowed a speedy and exclusive contact with federal prosecutors and the judiciary on a permanent basis, leading to more efficient investigations. You don't change a winning squad!"

Formal letter 

Last December the OECD working group sent a formal warning letter privately to the president of the Senate, Brazil's upper house of parliament, detailing its concerns about moves to water down anti-corruption laws, MLex has learned.

The Senate is understood to be still considering its response, but the OECD could go ahead and issue a more formal public letter of rebuke to Brazil following developments this year.

But the OECD group is understood not to feel that this will be a tough enough measure in Brazil's case, and the prospect looms of a high-level delegation of working group officials visiting to urge Brazilian lawmakers to reconsider the proposed laws.

Similar delegations have been sent to Argentina and Japan over perceived inaction against corruption.

This led to Argentina's lower Parliament last week passing legislation that could see companies penalized for paying bribes. Japan also recently introduced tough new measures to fight corruption.

The OECD group discussed the situation in Brazil at its last meeting in Paris in June.

The OECD Working Group declined to comment.

Damage Limitation: Trucks & Cartel Claims