Brazil's congressional cash-for-votes trial ends

AP News
Posted: Nov 28, 2012 6:20 PM

SAO PAULO (AP) — Brazil's Supreme court on Wednesday sentenced the last three of 25 defendants convicted on charges involving a congressional cash-for-votes scheme, bringing to an end a high-profile corruption trial that has riveted Latin America's largest country for nearly four months.

The court sentenced a former congressman, a former leader of the governing Workers' Party and a former treasurer of the Brazilian Labor Party on charges of money laundering, embezzlement and passive corruption.

The alleged corruption dates back to the government of Brazil's hugely popular former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was not charged. After two 4-year terms, Silva left office Jan. 1, 2011, with an 87 percent approval rating in opinion polls and remains a powerful political force in Brazil

Earlier this month the court convicted Silva's once powerful former chief of staff, Jose Dirceu of racketeering and of leading the vote-buying scheme in Congress. He was sentenced to 10 years and 10 months in prison. Dirceu, who was once considered a likely presidential candidate, resigned his post when the scandal broke in 2005.

Known in Brazil as the "mensalao," or big monthly allowance, for the sums of up to $10,000 handed over to politicians, the corruption scandal is considered the biggest in Brazil's history and may "tarnish the image and legacy" of Silva, said David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia.

He said the trial could become a turning point toward cleaner governance in Brazil where corruption and impunity have long marred public service.

"The trial represents a game change," Fleischer said by telephone. "It points not to the total elimination of impunity and the immunity enjoyed by congressmen, but to their substantial weakening."

Gil Castelo Branco, secretary general of the Brasilia-based nonprofit watchdog group Contas Abertas (Open Accounts), which advocates for transparency in government, agreed.

"Impunity is one of the factors that feeds corruption in Brazil. A corruptor is a gambler who will think twice before corrupting someone when he realizes that crime does not pay," Castelo Branco said. "The Supreme Court's handling of the mensalao is encouraging because it makes it clear that authorities who commit illicit acts will also go to jail — something we have seldom, if ever, seen in Brazil."

"The trial was a watershed that will hopefully lead to a less corrupt Brazil," he added. "The conviction of several important people has sent a clear signal that things are beginning to change, that Brazilians are fed up with corruption."

The Supreme Court must still determine if it can order the expulsion from the national legislature's Chamber of Deputies of the three congressmen convicted during the trial, or if that decision is up to the legislative branch.

Another issue the court must decide is if those convicted must start serving time immediately or if they can remain free pending appeals.