Updated 1 week, 3 days ago

Brazil’s leaders see way out of scandal: Amnesty

The president is accused of running on a ticket that got millions of dollars in illegal donations. One of his closest allies in the Senate is, too. The same goes for some of their bitter enemies in Congress, creating a widening sense of panic across Brazil’s political establishment.

Now, with new revelations into illegal campaign donations continuing to drop, lawmakers from across the ideological spectrum in Brazil have come up with a plan.

They are scrambling to give themselves amnesty.

Politicians who often spend their time jousting with one another are frantically trying to advance legislation this week to shield lawmakers from jail time.

“We have a saying in Brazil: ‘When the jungle is in flames, the beasts unite,’ ” said Gil Castello Branco, the director of Contas Abertas, a watchdog group that tracks political corruption. “Well, the fire has been lit, and all these politicians want to do is save their own skin.”

The sprawling investigation into corruption around the national oil company, Petrobras, is entering an explosive new phase. Testimony by executives at one of the oil company’s largest contractors, Odebrecht, details hundreds of millions of dollars in under-the-table contributions to Brazilian politicians.

This week, Brazil’s prosecutor general requested new investigations into dozens of politicians based on plea-bargain testimony from executives at Odebrecht, a construction giant that was a major donor of illicit campaign funds.

The push for amnesty by lawmakers has set off widespread anger here in Brazil, a country with a long tradition of allowing corrupt politicians to remain in power.

But as Brazil reels from a protracted economic crisis and the turmoil left over from the ouster of President Dilma Rousseff last year, some politicians argue that amnesty is in the national interest.

With dozens of business moguls and politicians already going to jail for corruption, the nation still healing from Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment and removal, and the economy trying to make a comeback, the amnesty is needed, they argue, to prevent further upheaval.

One of Brazil’s most powerful politicians, Aécio Neves, a senator from the centrist Brazilian Social Democracy Party and the runner-up in the 2014 presidential election, argued that accepting campaign funds, even if illegal, should be considered distinct from the corruption that has jolted the nation.

“A guy who took money at Petrobras isn’t the same as someone who took a hundred bucks to get elected,” Mr. Neves was quoted as saying at a dinner this month at Piantella, a restaurant in the capital frequented by elite politicians.

“Are we going to offer an opening for some savior of the homeland?” Mr. Neves asked, according to the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, referring to the potential for widespread disgust over corruption to bolster anti-establishment candidates ahead of next year’s presidential election.

“No, we need to salvage politics,” the senator said.

He did not mention that an Odebrecht executive recently testified that Mr. Neves had requested about $3 million in illegal campaign donations for his party, which anchors the coalition of Michel Temer, the embattled president.

The political dread over such testimony is casting attention on a practice known in Brazil as “caixa dois,” a so-called second cash register of financing that is undeclared to tax authorities. It can be used for political campaigns or receiving bribes, or as a slush fund encompassing a range of illicit activities.

Brazilian law allows for fines and jail sentences of up to five years for illegal campaign financing, though in practice few politicians go to prison for such crimes. Even so, with the exception of leaders from relatively small parties, the push for amnesty is uniting influential figures from across the spectrum. (Amnesty is not under discussion for crimes like bribery, embezzlement or money laundering.)

“Unfortunately, under-the-table campaign financing is historical and cultural, but doesn’t always shelter the practice of corruption,” said José Eduardo Cardozo, a former justice minister from the leftist Workers’ Party who defended Ms. Rousseff at her impeachment proceedings.

Other political figures, including a respected former president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, have expressed support for differentiating between illegal campaign financing and other types of crimes.

Still, others insist that existing campaign laws should remain intact and be fully enforced.

Carlos Ayres Britto, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court, called illegal campaign financing “an attack on the Constitution,” contending in an interview with the newspaper O Globo that efforts by lawmakers to grant themselves amnesty amount to “a denial of the rule of law.”

Some Brazilians found the amnesty push especially revolting because this is not the first time Congress has tried to retroactively make illegal campaign financing legal. Lawmakers sought to do so in November, only to abandon the proposal in the face of a public outcry.

“I see what’s going on. I’m not a fool,” said José Francisco da Silva, 78, a retired painter of automobiles. “Of course they’ll all get amnesty. Brazil only has thieves.”

With the resurrection of the measure this month, legal scholars point out that one beneficiary could be the president, Mr. Temer, who has dismal approval ratings. Thousands protested on Wednesday in cities around Brazil against Mr. Temer’s efforts to cut pension benefits.

He ran on the same ticket as Ms. Rousseff and was her vice president before maneuvering to oust her. Now he is embroiled in a case in which he and Ms. Rousseff face accusations of receiving illegal financing in their 2014 campaign.

Mr. Temer could be ousted if the electoral court hearing the case rules against him. While Odebrecht’s former chief executive has said the company gave about $50 million to their campaign, Mr. Temer and Ms. Rousseff say they are innocent of wrongdoing.

At the same time, tempers are flaring over reports that judges on the electoral court are brokering a deal to delay a ruling on the case or rule in Mr. Temer’s favor, effectively allowing him to remain president through 2018 despite a growing body of testimony laying out violations of campaign finance laws.

Ms. Rousseff was ousted on different charges: that she manipulated the budget to disguise economic problems. Now, supporters of Mr. Temer, including some who backed the impeachment of Ms. Rousseff, say he should be allowed to stay in office to avoid further upheaval as his administration tries to restore economic growth.

Lucas de Aragão, a partner at Arko Advice, a political risk consulting firm in the capital, argued that the case was similar to the 2000 ruling by the United States Supreme Court effectively handing the presidential election to George W. Bush over Al Gore despite claims of irregularities involving ballots in Florida.

“Rule of law and democracy are still intact over there,” Mr. Aragão said, citing the need for “stability.”

But Míriam Leitão, one of Brazil’s top economic commentators, said Brazil risked squandering the gains from its anticorruption drive.

“The country needs to grow again and go back to creating jobs,” Ms. Leitão wrote in her column in O Globo. “But that road will be more solid if the institutions continue combating the promiscuous relations between political leaders and the companies chosen as power’s beneficiaries.”