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Charges against senator reveal depths of corruption in Brazil’s ruling class

Guards stand outside the presidential palace Planalto in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, May 11, 2016.

Felipe Dana/AP

Amidst the political turbulence in Brazil, where a multibillion-dollar graft scandal claims new high-profile victims each week, it barely made news here when the federal prosecutor revealed an array of charges against a senator for money-laundering and embezzlement last week.

Yet this case is a particularly illuminating and jaw-dropping example of the depths of corruption and the power of the traditional ruling class in this country's political system.

The target of the investigation is Senator Fernando Collor de Mello. His name may seem familiar because Mr. Collor is a former Brazilian president. In fact, he was the first president of the new democratic era, after the military dictatorship ended; he took office in 1990. But he held the presidency for just two short years before resigning in a failed attempt to stave off impeachment on corruption charges.

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The drama around Mr. Collor's impeachment was spectacular even by local standards. His brother gave a tell-all interview to a magazine saying the president was involved in illicit business dealings; millions of people took to the streets to demand that he step down. Later, his campaign manager was found murdered in his beach house, and the president's now ex-wife said he was using drugs and performing satanic rituals.

Mr. Collor was impeached by the Senate, then acquitted of criminal charges by the Supreme Court for lack of evidence. But he was stripped of the right to hold public office for eight years. And given the breadth of the scandal, one might have assumed that he would not be eager to return to public life.

Yet as soon as the ban had expired, he ran for governor of the state of Alagoas, where his family was the bedrock of the political establishment. He lost. But in 2006, he was elected to the Senate. In 2010, he ran for governor, and lost again. In 2014, he ran and was returned to the Senate.

This past August, as senators debated the impeachment of then-president Dilma Rousseff, Mr. Collor took the opportunity to speak at length from the floor about his own impeachment, describing himself as the hapless victim of a misused legal system.

But, according to prosecutors, Mr. Collor lost little time, upon returning to public office, in resuming his previous modus operandi and use of public funds. Last week, after the Supreme Court unsealed the charges, Brazilians learned that he is being investigated in 376 cases of money-laundering, 30 of corruption and 48 of embezzlement. The charges identify Mr. Collor as a key member of a "criminal organization" that includes his current wife and much of his political staff.

Chief prosecutor Rodrigo Janot alleges that the senator received, at minimum, 29 million reals in bribes related to contracts at a subsidiary of Petrobras, the national energy company.

"This news was no surprise, frankly," said Brasilio Sallum, the author of Fernando Collor's Impeachment: The Sociology of a Crisis. It would not have occurred to Mr. Collor to change his alleged bribe-taking when he returned to public office, he added, "because this is just the way politics was done up until now. … This is the system that has been embedded in our democracy, and only now is it starting to change."

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Mr. Collor's office declined an interview request, but the senator said in a statement that the "truth will prevail in the face of this vile prosecution" and he "trusts that the serene assessment of justice shall transmit the fiction of the [prosecutor] to the furthest coffers of history." He said all the assets in question were earned through his family's media company.

Prof. Sallum, who teaches sociology at the University of Sao Paulo, said the ex-president was acquitted on criminal charges in the 1990s only because the law then required prosecutors to demonstrate that a politician took money as a quid pro quo for some specific action, a burden of proof they could not provide. The mere purchasing of influence was not then prosecutable.

New laws, and the fervour of investigation around the graft scandal known as Lava Jato, make the environment today markedly different, he said.

The professor added that Mr., Collor also appears to believe that he is invincible. He continues to flaunt a collection of luxury cars and airplanes, Prof. Sallum observed, in the manner of a man who does not see the public climate shifting.

On Friday, police arrested four members of the special force assigned to protect Congress and its members on the grounds that they were offering a "special service" to some senior politicians, including Mr. Collor, by revealing the presence of wiretaps and destroying evidence related to ongoing corruption investigations.

"We're living through a very dark moment, as a country – but it's also possible to see that we're moving in a positive direction," Prof. Sallum said.

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About the Author
Latin America Bureau Chief

Stephanie Nolen is the Latin America correspondent for The Globe and Mail. After years as a roving correspondent that included coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stephanie moved to Johannesburg in 2003 to open a new bureau for The Globe, to report on what she believed was the world's biggest uncovered story, Africa's AIDS pandemic. More

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