|The Joke Stops Here|
|Thursday, 25 October 2012 15:58|
The Mensalao trial suggests that Brazil is changing
by Mac Margolis
As the mensalÃ£o - monthly payoff - scandal reaches a peak, Brazilians are getting a bit anxious. Is the historic conviction of 25 political mucky mucks from former President Luiz InÃ¡cio Lula da Silva's administration the beginning of a new era, when crime really doesn't pay and a white collar is no longer a get-out-of-jail-free card? Or is this a passing Brazilian dream, after which the country will snap back into its too familiar routine of payola as usual and watching the high and mighty get away with murder?
Matthew Taylor, in these pages, sounded an eloquentÂ cautionary note, warning of the potentially lenient punishments likely to be handed down by the Supreme Court. Still, in the national furor over the corruption trial, known in legalese as Penal Action 470, it's hard to escape the conclusion that Brazil indeed has turned a corner - and that the mensalÃ£o is only part of the story.
Shopping for votes is hardly news in Brasilia, where democratically elected presidents almost never enjoy a congressional majority and so must constantly grovel and bargain for support among lawmakers, who change allegiances like they change socks. Others note that corruption is a work in progress, ever adjusting to the shifting opportunities afforded by a bloated bureaucracy. Think of the 24,000 public service jobs in Brasilia - a pot of patronage to be served up or withheld at the sole discretion of the president.
Still, there is evidence that Brazilians are losing their patience for official sleight of hand. Since it was created as a watchdog group in 2003, the Controladoria Geral da UniÃ£o (CGU), the federal auditor, has fired 3,800 employees from public service, most on charges of corruption and improbity. The comptrollers also have blacklisted 2,377 companies and 2,759 individuals fingered for suspect business practices, banning them from public tenders. "Brazil created the CGU and gave investigators at the federal prosecutor's office - the MinistÃ©rio Publico - full autonomy," says Jorge Hage, chief minister at the CGU. "With this, we've begun to take the basic steps to counter corruption."
And yet beyond the executive branch, all bets are off. Part of the problem is the thicket of rules and regulations that conspire against achieving timely justice in the common court. Criminal prosecutors file thousands of cases a year. But they soon hit a log jam. "Our legal system allows scores of appeals that can string a case along almost indefinitely," says Hage.
Another vexing rule is that in Brazil a convicted criminal cannot be sent to prison until all possible appeals are exhausted. That's a perk that favors the rich who can hire clever attorneys. "With a good lawyer - and the corrupt are able to hire the best the country has - convicted defendants can drag out their case for years and years. Some never reach a conclusion." And even if they do, often the statue of limitations on crimes will have expired, thus allowing even convicted felons to walk.
And yet as the high court wraps up the "trial of the century," as Brazilians call it, the flickering signs are that even the oldest rules can change. Just ask DelÃºbio Soares. When the scandal broke seven years ago, the former Workers Party (PT) treasurer, who regulated the money flow to the ruling party and its allies, waved it all off as a kerfluffle, predicting that the whole imbroglio would end up as a "party joke." Convicted in early October by the high court for corruption and criminal conspiracy, Soares may have to hear the punch line behind bars.