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Brazil's Lava Jato corruption probe has brought most of the nation's parliamentarians under suspicion – and the list of those whose reputations are still intact is very, very short. Stephanie Nolen and Elisângela Mendonça set out on a journey to see who's still clean and how they work with dirty politics

Illustrations by Murat Yükselir/The Globe and Mail

Table of contentsIntroductionThe unicornThe defender of the systemThe conspiracy theoristThe optimist

Brazil's mammoth Lava Jato corruption investigation has ensnared what seems like the entire political class. All five of the country's living former presidents are under investigation. Forty-four of 81 senators, more than 155 members of Congress and a third of cabinet ministers are indicted or the subject of investigation, in Lava Jato or other cases it has spawned in the past three years.

The tapes in which President Michel Temer was apparently caught urging a steady flow of bribes to the former speaker of the house, now jailed, and to judges and prosecutors are part of a plea bargain from the meatpacking giant JBS. In it, executives said they had made illegal payments to 1,829 political candidates from 28 parties, of whom 179 became deputies in the lower house, 28 were elected senators and 16, governor.

Only a few of those indicted have so far answered to charges in court and most insist their innocence will yet be proved. But Brazilians are nevertheless despairing. Lava Jato is exposing the workings of institutionalized corruption, a decades-old system that worked like this: Construction conglomerates and oil and gas companies made "donations" to politicians for their campaigns or their personal accounts. In exchange, they won contracts and had laws blocked or amended to suit them.

We wanted to know how Brazil got to this point and we decided to seek answers from those who know the system best: members of Congress themselves. We wanted to ask those "clean" politicians, those on the short list of "not under suspicion," how the system works and what it would take to clean it up – and if it's even possible to operate in Brasilia if you don't play the game.

But first we had to find them. We took a list of deputies and senators and began to cross off everyone convicted, awaiting trial or indicted for corruption; everyone named in Lava Jato plea-bargain testimony as having solicited or taken bribes; everyone with criminal cases before the Supreme Court, the only body that can authorize investigation of a sitting federal politician; and everyone named in internal Congress investigations for misuse of public funds. That left us with just one senator, and 81 of the 513 members of the lower house.

Then we turned to report cards prepared by media and congressional monitoring organizations, and eliminated members who don't show up for debates, don't vote or don't sponsor legislation. If Lava Jato was about buying influence, we figured active players in the political arena would have more to say about how it works. We wound up with just a dozen names and decided to seek out one from each major political party – and one unicorn, the only politician everyone agrees is clean.

The unicorn

Chico Alencar is a member of the lower house from Rio de Janeiro serving his fourth mandate. Mr. Alencar, 67, wins top marks in all Congress report cards every year. He was first elected as a member of the Workers' Party (PT), at the start of its 13 years of rule – but quit the party after two, saying he was disillusioned by its failure to govern according to its principles. He and a few others formed a break-away organization called the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) and Mr. Alencar now sits as one of its six representatives. The PSOL is so small that it's hard to imagine any corporation trying to buy its influence – but we started with Mr. Alencar because he has kept so far above the mucky fray while actively participating in government for 14 years.

Chico Alencar

Mr. Alencar is a historian and he puts Lava Jato in the context of a process of "colonization" of Brazilian politics by powerful economic interests that goes back a century, to the late 1800s. The cozy relationship between rulers and big business (first plantation owners, later constructions companies) continued through the decades of military dictatorship that ended in 1985. In the return to democracy, those same interests positioned themselves to finance campaigns – "not only the contractors, but the miners, the banks, the agribusiness exporters," Mr. Alencar said. "It's a trade: 'I elect an executive and he facilitates my bids. I organize a cartel with some other companies and we win the contracts.'" Then came the full-on purchase of parliamentary mandates, he said, when politicians were "bought" so they would pass laws that benefited their patrons, or block ones that didn't.

Mr. Alencar recalled having former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva sitting at his kitchen table, after the third time he ran for the presidency and lost, and saying that he would only run again if he could line up significant resources – which meant corporate funding, a practice Mr. Alencar said he tried to talk him out of. Mr. da Silva raised vast sums of corporate cash, got elected the fourth time he ran, and made key political alliances; the Lava Jato accusations include every party in that governing coalition (and many in the opposition), Mr. Alencar noted. "It's our political caste."

Once in Brasilia, he learned that lobbyists and businesses categorize politicians as those who are so marginal they're not worth bothering with; those on the rise who might be worth buying; and those already in the scheme. "I guess I've always been on the sidelines." But the PSOL, while too small to influence events with votes, punches above its weight by making noise on key issues, he said.

Is it possible to stay clean in a big party? "Not for long. When you are inside the party, you see how things are done. Either you quit, or you play the game. You don't necessarily participate directly. But you make compromises, you turn a blind eye. It is impossible not to know about the schemes if you are inside the party. So if it really bothers you, you'll be uncomfortable and you'll end up leaving. Or else you settle in."

Lava Jato, he said, pains him for what it reveals about the state of the country, but he is glad to see it laying bare the systemic nature of the deals. "The depth of the corruption still surprises me – I can still be shocked. I guess I'm still a bit naive.

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The defender of the system

After Mr. Alencar, it was time to see the big parties. We wanted to speak to someone in the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB): it's President Temer's party, in power since the impeachment of then-president Dilma Rousseff last year. The PMDB has been central to every governing coalition in the democratic era. There was just one PMDB member of Congress whose name didn't turn up on any of the investigation lists we checked: Pedro Chaves, 58, serving his fifth mandate representing the agricultural state of Goias.

Pedro Chaves

Mr. Chaves expressed both dismay at the state of Brazilian politics and confusion about how it got this way. "Our political system, with businesses funding campaigns – other countries have this but [the corruption] doesn't happen." He said that Brazil's fractured political landscape also contributes: There are so many parties, he said, that it is hard to build a functioning coalition to govern. Meanwhile campaigns grow increasingly elaborate and expensive.

He said that he had no idea about the scale of corruption going on, with his party at the centre of it, until the Lava Jato charges began to be laid. He said no one ever tried to bribe him. "They approach leaders, who can open doors." And despite serving five mandates, Mr. Chaves said: "I had no contact with the leaders or executives named in Lava Jato."

That raised a new question: Is Brasilia divided into politicians on the take, who actually make things happen, and those who sit on the sidelines, swapping their reliable votes for a cushy life and a hefty pension? "I can't say that to get a project approved or have an impact, you have to participate in that system. I don't have trouble advancing legislation," Mr. Chaves said. He often makes proposals in the legislature to name roads or buildings after people; only one piece of legislation that he drafted has ever become law (it concerned the release of funds to the federal airport authority).

Then Mr. Chaves began an unsolicited and spirited defence of Eduardo Cunha, the PMDB leader who was until recently considered the most powerful man in Brazilian politics – and in March was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for corruption and money-laundering. Mr. Cunha always listened to all the party members during caucus meetings, Mr. Chaves said – and the lower house hasn't run nearly as smoothly or efficiently since Mr. Cunha was arrested. "Cunha as a leader, you couldn't complain about him."

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The conspiracy theorist

It was demoralizing to hear Mr. Chaves heap praise on one of the chief villains of Lava Jato: Mr. Cunha's leadership skills haven't been much benefit to Brazilians. We headed next to the Senate to meet with Regina Sousa, the one senator who came out unblemished in our audit. She represents the Workers' Party (PT), Brazil's second-largest, forced out of power with the impeachment of Ms. Rousseff. Ms. Sousa, 66, is a long-time union activist and one of just seven black senators; she represents the northeastern state of Piaui, where income and economic activity are low.

Regina Sousa

Ms. Sousa is in her first mandate and said that the Lava Jato unravelling was under way by the time she got to Brasilia. No one has tried to bribe her, in the 18 months she has been in Congress. "Given my tough attitude, I do not think anyone would have the courage to approach me. They know I would turn them over [to the police]."

But the practice of inflating contracts to allow for million-dollar kickbacks comes as no surprise to her, she said, adding that corruption in government has been around since Brazil's imperial days. And it isn't just the bids for billion-dollar oil rigs, either. Ms. Sousa said she had learned that laws on subjects as simple as school transport or the paving of a road involve kickbacks: Senators propose amendments, for which they have been paid off by a business. "After I got here, I saw why a provisional measure is created with three clauses and, in the end, has more than 50." She said she trained her staff to immediately end meetings with anyone who raised the idea of her proposing amendments.

But Ms. Sousa is a critic of the Lava Jato process, saying that the extensive lists of those under investigation risk permanently tarnishing the names of politicians who may well be proved innocent when they get their day in court. She said she believes much of the process is aimed at undermining former president Mr. da Silva (who is charged with corruption, money laundering and obstruction of justice) and the left.

She has some prescriptions for cleanup: There should be much greater scrutiny on infrastructure contracts in future, to prevent the bloating in bids that allowed for the millions of dollars of kickbacks, she said. And there must be an active campaign of political education with young people, so that they understand how Congress works and how little most members do at present.

But she isn't optimistic about the next election, in 2018. "I think it will be disastrous because we know that it is necessary to renew, but renew with whom? Everyone has an heir lined up: a deputy's son, a governor's son, a mayor's son. … They come from the same thinking, there is no real change." And this Congress will never pass badly needed political reforms, such as term limits, she added. "They won't do anything that jeopardizes their own future."

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The optimist

Fabio Sousa's vision of Brazil's immediate future is not a rosy one. But our last visit brought a surprising note of optimism. We went to see Mr. Sousa, a 34-year-old in his first mandate as a deputy in the federal Congress; he has served two terms as a state Congress member in Goias. (He's no relation to Regina Sousa.) He is a member of the right-leaning Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB). Many senior leaders in the party, including the former presidential candidate Senator Aecio Neves, are under investigation in Lava Jato. Mr. Sousa began the conversation by protesting that being an honest politician shouldn't make him a rarity.

Fabio Sousa

Mr. Sousa suggested that the world of Brazilian politics has become the known playing ground for those of dubious ethics. "Here we have a popular saying that 'the opportunity makes the thief'. But I do not agree: I think the thief makes the opportunity." Some blame the campaign finance system for causing the corruption, he noted, and curtailing the role of big donors would help – "but there are many people who did not just err in the election: They continually act this way, like those who bought and sold amendments of laws. Corruption happens in the whole process."

He pointed to the widespread presence of lobbyists in Brasilia, who freely roam the halls of Congress although the practice is officially illegal. He said one had tried to bribe him, showing up in the office in his first days in Congress to discuss a proposed law and then asking if, by the way, he had any campaign debts that needed clearing. "I said if he didn't stop right there, we'd be continuing the conversation with the police."

The only shocker in Lava Jato for him is the scale of the theft, he said. He described participating in an inquiry into corruption at Petrobras, the state oil company where Lava Jato began. A mid-level manager was testifying, and said he had taken a "small" sum. "I asked, 'How small?' He said, 'Oh, about $3-million.' At the time I was amazed, these people have lost all sense! … and I was angry. But then, when you start to discover the values involved, you realize that $3-million really is small!"

Mr. Sousa said the dealmakers behind the bribes preferred "wholesale to retail" and targeted political leaders who could deliver a bank of votes. But he said that it was possible to stay out of the cluster of those around the leader and still be effective in Congress. "I think you can make a difference with proposals, with speeches, with work, instead of looking for trouble."

He wants Brazilians to vote directly for candidates, instead of using the opaque party slate system they have now. And within the parties, the "good people" have to push those tied to corruption out of their leadership positions. That includes the leadership of his own party. "The ship is sinking and it looks like the PSDB, instead of catching a lifeboat, are holding on to the mast to take everyone down together."

"God willing, this is the end of a political generation that will either be convicted or will be eliminated from Brazilian politics." He put some blame on voters, too: they have known for years that their politicians were dirty, but keep returning them to office. "They will have to vote for other people, for there to be change."

Yet Mr. Sousa believes Lava Jato is a turning-point for Brazil. "This system is being broken … Now people will think twice before they [take bribes or offer them.] I do not believe it will stop, but the sense of impunity will end … " He rattled off a list of some of the most powerful politicians and business leaders in Brazil, who are now in jail, such as Marcelo Odebrecht, former chief executive officer of Odebrecht SA.

"If we continue at this pace, in 20 or 30 years, Brazil will be ready to be recognized as one of the best countries in the world."

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