BRASILIA, Oct 4 — It takes a lot to get thrown out of Brazil’s Congress.
Flagrant acts of bribery, violence and even murder have proved insufficient reasons for Brazilian legislators to strip their colleagues of office. In the latest example, senators protested vociferously last week after the Supreme Court ordered the expulsion of one of their own: Aecio Neves, a former presidential candidate accused of corruption. The Senate held a discussion on his case yesterday evening, but postponed a vote until Oct 17.
While dozens of politicians have come under investigation since the start of the sprawling graft probe known as Operation Carwash three years ago, Brazil’s parties have done virtually nothing to acknowledge mistakes or punish those involved. Their apparent lack of redemption has deepened Brazilians’ contempt for politicians, paving the way for outsiders to rise in polls ahead of next year’s elections.
No less than 40 per cent of Brazil’s 594 lawmakers face formal investigations before the Supreme Court, the tribunal’s figures show. Forty-seven deputies and eight senators are currently defendants in criminal trials. Just two have lost their jobs over corruption charges.
Arguably the most striking example of Congress’ unwillingness to censure its own is the case of Celso Jacob, a congressman from the ruling PMDB party, sentenced to prison for over seven years for falsifying documents and breaking laws on public tenders while he was mayor. While he spends his nights in jail, he continues to work as a deputy during the day.
Among the only two congressmen to have been expelled from Congress for acts of corruption and money-laundering uncovered by Operation Carwash is Eduardo Cunha, the former lower house chief and key player behind last year’s impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. Even though Cunha serves a 15-year prison sentence in the southern city of Curitiba, he’s still a member of President Michel Temer’s party.
Since the start of the investigation, in 2014, at least 60 deputies and around 30 senators have come under investigation. And yet, the congressional ethics committees have acted on few requests to discipline peers.
PSOL Deputy Chico Alencar, one of the lawmakers on the lower house ethics committee that stripped Cunha of his mandate, told Bloomberg that his party had grown weary of bringing cases given the legislature’s tendency to bury charges.
“I have to admit we’ve got a little tired,” he said. “Ethics and transparency ought to be values in politics, but in parliament they don’t feature. Any investigation is dead on arrival.”
Scandals going unpunished in Brazilian politics is hardly a new phenomenon. Perhaps the most spectacular example is the case of Senator Arnon de Mello, father of ex-president Fernando Collor de Mello, who shot and killed a man on the floor of the Upper House in 1963. He was cleared of all charges and faced no sanctions from his colleagues.
Congress has taken some steps to improve its standing with the public. In 2010, after the cash-for-votes scandal known as the mensalao prompted widespread voter outrage, lawmakers passed the so-called Clean Slate law, aimed at barring anyone whose conviction is upheld on appeal from running for political office for eight years.
It’s this law that will bar the day-release deputy Jacob from running for office again when his term expires. It could also stop Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva from running for the presidency next year.
The Supreme Court’s ruling on Neves, who narrowly lost the 2014 election to Rousseff and now stands accused of obstruction of justice and corruption, has reignited the debate over Congress’ failure to hold its members accountable. Charges were filed against him in June, but a Senate ethics committee voted to shelve them the following month, prompting widespread criticism.
“The ethics committee was practically buried when it shelved the charges against Aecio,” said Randolfe Rodrigues, the senator who brought the case against him. “It’s become a decorative item. For the ethics committee, corruption has stopped being a crime.” — Bloomberg