RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil's attorney general on Tuesday asked the Supreme Court for permission to investigate 54 people, the majority top political figures, for alleged involvement in what prosecutors say is the country's largest corruption scandal yet uncovered.
Attorney General Rodrigo Janot's request opens an expansive new phase of the investigation into the kickback scheme at state-run oil company Petrobras.
"We're going to work with tranquility, with balance. Those who must pay will pay," Janot told supporters outside his office late Monday night. "We're going to investigate. This will be a long process, we're just now beginning. The investigation begins and we'll follow it through to the end."
Janot didn't release the names of the people he wants to investigate — that can only happen once the top court says he can begin his work.
Under Brazilian law, a Supreme Court justice must approve investigations against federal congressmen, along with the top figures of the executive branch. Any future criminal charges or trials against such officials must also must be approved by and judged within the top court. The investigation, possible charges and any eventual trials are expected to take several years to play out before the court.
A spokeswoman for the Supreme Court confirmed that justice Teori Zavascki had received Janot's request to open investigations, but that there was no indication of when he would give the attorney general the green light to do so.
The scandal has dented the reputation of Petrobras, Brazil's largest company. It's tasked with tapping upward of 100 billion barrels of offshore oil found in recent years, wealth leaders have repeatedly said they view as the nation's "passport" to achieving developed-world status. But the debt-plagued firm is struggling. It was recently downgraded to junk status by Moody's Investors Service and said this week it would sharply cut back investment and sell off assets.
Before Tuesday, federal investigators had focused efforts on powerful construction and engineering firms that allegedly paid over $800 million in bribes and other funds during the decade-long scheme — money that won them inflated contracts with Petrobras. Prosecutors say some of that cash flowed into the campaign coffers of the ruling Workers' Party and its allies.
The push against politicians is a blow to President Dilma Rousseff, herself a former chairwoman of Petrobras' board. She hasn't been directly implicated in the scandal, denies wrongdoing and has publicly applauded the investigation as crucial to diminishing corruption in Brazil.
But her approval rating has plummeted since being sworn in to her second term three months ago. There are even growing calls for her impeachment by those convinced she knew of the Petrobras scheme, though experts said her being cast from office remains a remote possibility.
The Petrobras investigation has created extreme turbulence in Brazil's business and political circles, but experts have hailed it as a leap forward in the nation's fight against impunity for the powerful.
"This scandal has exposed the structure of corruption in Brazil. It was never explained how it worked. This time, it's clear," said Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "You have connections between the executives in state companies, the companies that supply goods and services to the government and to some politicians."
Sotero said the investigation and trials will be painful for the nation, but he sees it "as an enormous chance for Brazil to face its demons and correct them."
Sotero and other Brazil experts praise the federal police and prosecutors for carrying out the investigation that has already landed top executives from Brazil's biggest construction and engineering firms in jail — a first for a nation where the rich have seemingly forever known impunity.
Others say it's a huge advance for a Brazilian democracy that emerged just three decades ago from a long dictatorship.
"This case signifies the strengthening of Brazilian democracy. Brazil is showing itself and the world that its institutions of control are strong and independent," said Carlos Pereira, a professor of public administration at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio and one of Brazil's top experts on corruption.
The case unfolding now wouldn't be possible had it not been for the groundbreaking 2012 prosecution of top political operatives in the so-called "Mensalao" scandal, which came to light in 2005 and saw top aides of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva paying off congressmen to support their legislation. That resulted jail time for Silva's former chief of staff and others.
"Corruption in Brazil is like a tumor. To cure the tumor, you've first got to dig it out," said Eliane Cantanhede, one of Brazil's best-known political commentators. "Society is learning what went on. Petrobras is paying a huge price for this."
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