Thursday, April 14, 2016

Dilma Rousseff Targeted in Brazil by Lawmakers Facing Graft Cases of Their Own
New York Times
APRIL 14, 2016

BRASÍLIA — Paulo Maluf, a Brazilian congressman, is so badly besieged by his own graft scandals that his constituents often describe him with the slogan “Rouba mas faz.” Translation: He steals but gets it done.

But like an array of other scandal-plagued members of Brazil’s Congress, Mr. Maluf says he is so fed up with all the corruption in the country that he supports ousting President Dilma Rousseff.

“I’m against all the dubious horse-trading this government does,” said Mr. Maluf, 84, a former São Paulo mayor who faces charges in the United States that he stole more than $11.6 million in a kickback scheme.

The drive to impeach Ms. Rousseff is gaining momentum. A pivotal vote to send her case to the Senate for a possible trial is expected over the weekend, and several of the political parties in her governing coalition abandoned her this week, leaving her especially vulnerable.

But some of the most vocal lawmakers pushing to impeach Ms. Rousseff are facing serious charges of graft, electoral fraud and human rights abuses, uncorking a national debate about hypocrisy among Brazil’s leaders.

“Dilma may have dug her own grave by not delivering on what she promised, but she is untainted in a political realm smeared with excrement from top to bottom,” said Mario Sergio Conti, a columnist for the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo. “She didn’t steal, but a gang of thieves is judging her.”

Ms. Rousseff is deeply resented in Brazil, having presided over the worst economic crisis in decades, a huge corruption scandal engulfing the national oil company and the fall of millions of middle-class Brazilians into poverty.

Ms. Rousseff, then, is something of a rarity among Brazil’s major political figures: She has not been accused of stealing for herself.

Eduardo Cunha, the powerful speaker of the lower house who is leading the impeachment effort, is going on trial at the country’s highest court, the Supreme Federal Tribunal, on charges that he pocketed as much as $40 million in bribes. Mr. Cunha, an evangelical Christian radio commentator and economist who regularly issues Twitter messages quoting from the Bible, is accused of laundering the gains through an evangelical megachurch.

Vice President Michel Temer, who is expected to take over if Ms. Rousseff is forced to step aside, has been accused of involvement in an illegal ethanol-purchasing scheme.

Renan Calheiros, the Senate leader, who is also on the presidential succession chain, is under investigation over claims that he received bribes in the giant scandal surrounding the national oil company, Petrobras. He has also been accused of tax evasion and of allowing a lobbyist to pay child support for a daughter from an extramarital affair.

Altogether, 60 percent of the 594 members of Brazil’s Congress face serious charges like bribery, electoral fraud, illegal deforestation, kidnapping and homicide, according to Transparency Brazil, a corruption-monitoring group.

The issue has even become a part of the president’s defense strategy. In particular, Ms. Rousseff and her supporters have argued, how can the impeachment process be directed by someone who is going on trial for corruption himself?

On Thursday, José Eduardo Cardozo, the solicitor general, said that his office had appealed to the Supreme Federal Tribunal in an attempt to block the impeachment proceedings.

He said the effort to oust Ms. Rousseff had become so sprawling that it was “a true Kafkaesque process in which the defendant cannot figure out with any certainty what she is being accused of or why.”

No one can dispute that Ms. Rousseff is very unpopular around the country, as reflected in her nearly single-digit approval ratings, the broad ire over bribery and kickbacks within her Workers’ Party, and the regular street protests demanding her ouster.

Even so, some Brazilians argue that the impeachment upheaval has less to do with stamping out corruption than with an effort to shift power by lawmakers with questionable records themselves.

Ms. Rousseff’s opponents in Congress include Éder Mauro, who is facing charges of torture and extortion from his previous stint as a police officer in Belém, a crime-weary city in the Amazon.

Another congressman aiming to impeach Ms. Rousseff: Beto Mansur, who is charged with keeping 46 workers at his soybean farms in Goiás State in conditions so deplorable that investigators say the laborers were treated like modern-day slaves.

Almost daily, prosecutors reveal accusations involving Ms. Rousseff’s allies and adversaries in Congress, saying they pocketed bribes in the colossal graft scheme surrounding government-controlled energy companies.

Graphic photos even circulated this month of prostitutes operating in a wing of Congress reserved for committee deliberations, reminding Brazilians of the institution’s circuslike atmosphere these days.

Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, criticized the impeachment process, saying the accusations against Ms. Rousseff “are not crimes, but they are related to poor administration.”

He said that the president’s missteps were “actions that other presidents in the past took themselves,” but that Brazil’s politicians were “judging her differently.”

Mr. Almagro also criticized the politicians who were pushing for impeachment but facing corruption accusations themselves.

“I am worried about the credibility of some of those who are going to judge or decide this impeachment process,” he said.

Mr. Maluf, the former mayor who supports the president’s removal, spent weeks in jail a decade ago on charges of money laundering and tax evasion.

But he was released under a law allowing people older than 70 to face such accusations at home. Then Mr. Maluf won a seat in Congress, giving him the privileged judicial standing that keeps nearly all senior Brazilian politicians with such privileges out of jail.

Despite Mr. Maluf’s claims in recent days that he could travel outside Brazil without being arrested, he remains wanted by Interpol for the case against him in the United States, according to the United States Justice Department. France also has an outstanding warrant for his arrest in a separate case involving organized money laundering.

“My public life was always the opposite of all that,” Mr. Maluf said last week, criticizing the bad deeds in Ms. Rousseff’s government, including her scramble to offer cabinet posts to legislators on the fence over impeachment.

Scholars note the sweeping legal protections enjoyed by about 700 senior officials, including cabinet ministers and every member of Congress. Only the Supreme Federal Tribunal can try them, producing years of appeals and delays.

“Winning election to Congress is a license to steal for certain figures,” said Sylvio Costa, the founder of Congresso em Foco, a watchdog group that tracks legislative corruption. “In this grotesque system, the biggest thieves are those who wield the most power.”

Claims of misdeeds among other lawmakers do not bother some of the politicians wanting Ms. Rousseff impeached. Roberto Jefferson, a former legislator who went to prison after his conviction for his role in a vote-buying scheme, said that Mr. Cunha’s talent for political double-dealing served as a strategic advantage.

“The bandit I’m rooting for the most is Eduardo Cunha,” Mr. Jefferson said. (Several lawmakers seeking to oust Ms. Rousseff, including Mr. Cunha, either declined requests for comment or did not respond.)

One prominent supporter of Ms. Rousseff is Fernando Collor de Mello, the disgraced former president who resigned in 1992 over an influence-peddling scandal. He resurrected his political career as a senator, only to face charges now of taking bribes in the graft scheme around the national oil company.

Mr. Collor’s father, Arnon de Mello, set a precedent after fatally shooting a fellow senator on the Senate floor in 1963. Arnon de Mello managed to avoid prison after a court ruled that the episode was an accident — because he was aiming at another senator.

As tempers flare over impeachment, some cite the example of Ivo Cassol, a senator from the Amazon. He was sentenced to more than four years in prison in 2013 by the Supreme Federal Tribunal on corruption charges related to contracts granted more than 15 years ago. (Mr. Cassol considers himself innocent in the case, a spokesman said.)

Despite the ruling, Mr. Cassol remains in the Senate, keeping the high court’s decision at bay with appeals. He is now delivering some of the most impassioned speeches in favor of Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment, calling her government “disgraceful.”

Simon Romero reported from Brasília, and Vinod Sreeharsha from Rio de Janeiro.

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