Bolsonaro Finds Anticorruption Vow Threatened by Cases Close to Home

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SÃO PAULO — Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new far-right president, stepped onto the international stage this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, with a pitch that had resounded with voters back home: He was committed to eliminating entrenched corruption in his country.

But a series of questionable episodes just three weeks into his term has left Mr. Bolsonaro, who rode to power by denouncing elitist privilege, fending off charges that his administration is engaging in more of the same.

Three ministers as well as some midlevel directors implicated in corruption investigations have been hired by the administration, despite Mr. Bolsonaro’s stated policy of zero tolerance. The son of the vice president was promoted and given a threefold raise at a state-owned bank. Even a fine levied against Mr. Bolsonaro for fishing in protected waters back in 2012 was voided by the authorities.

Mr. Bolsonaro and his allies have also continued using legal but much-despised political privileges, such as accepting the moving allowances granted to federal lawmakers and officials — even when they already live in the capital.

But the biggest challenge to Mr. Bolsonaro’s young administration is a case involving his son Flávio, a senator. Last week, at the younger Bolsonaro’s request, a Supreme Court judge suspended an investigation into hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial transactions made by an aide to Flávio Bolsonaro.

“It’s politics as usual. I don’t see any difference with other governments,” said Manoel Galdino, executive director of Transparência Brasil, a watchdog group. “Despite Bolsonaro being elected on a platform of changing corrupt practices, it will be a surprise if there are big changes.”

The case involving Flávio Bolsonaro began unfolding in December, when federal financial investigators discovered that about 1.2 million reais, or roughly $320,000, had been moved in and out of a bank account belonging to an aide, Fabrício Queiroz, in 2017. At the time, Flávio Bolsonaro was a Rio de Janeiro State lawmaker and Mr. Queiroz was his driver.

Among the transactions were payments to the president’s wife, Michelle. The president said Mr. Queiroz was repaying a loan to his wife.

Investigators have declined to comment on the case, but critics say the transactions, typically made around payday, could reflect an illegal but common practice in Brazil: hiring “ghost” or no-show employees and then pocketing large portions of their salaries.

As part of the inquiry, the authorities are also investigating 48 cash deposits made on five days in a one-month period into Flávio Bolsonaro’s account.

Flávio Bolsonaro has denied any wrongdoing, and said the transactions were part of a payment for a property he sold.

Elected a federal senator in October, Flávio Bolsonaro initially insisted that he was not under investigation and would meet with prosecutors. Instead, days before his father boarded a plane for Davos, he appealed to the Supreme Court to suspend the investigation under his right to legislative immunity.

The judge agreed, although the transactions occurred when Flávio Bolsonaro was still a state representative. Under Brazilian law, federal lawmakers and high-level politicians can only be tried in the top court.

The case, which the full Supreme Court will revisit when it convenes again in February, has prompted a backlash even among allies of the new president.

“Flávio Bolsonaro’s request has a very bad smell,” tweeted Kim Kataguiri, a right-wing congressman who called the use of legislative immunity “at the very least, suspicious.”

President Bolsonaro has repeatedly criticized immunity as a shield for corrupt politicians, calling it “garbage” in a 2017 video that he recorded alongside Flávio.

Mr. Bolsonaro, for years a marginal figure in Congress best known for his provocative comments about women, gay people and black people, convinced voters that they should overlook his contentious past because he was the only candidate bold enough to tackle rampant violence and political corruption, as well as make market-friendly reforms to turn around the country’s recession.

That was the message he delivered to the world’s business and political leaders in Davos this week.

“We’re here to show that Brazil has changed,” he told journalists after arriving. “Brazil is taking steps so the world re-establishes its confidence in us, so that businesses flourish inside Brazil and the world, without ideological tendencies, so that we can be a safe country for investments.”

When asked in Davos about the case involving his son, Mr. Bolsonaro told Bloomberg, “If by chance he erred and it were proven, I regret it as a father, but he’ll have to pay the price for those actions we can’t accept.”

While Brazilian markets have rallied since Mr. Bolsonaro’s electoral victory, the government is trying to attract more foreign investment. An overhaul of the country’s social security program, including a raise in the retirement age, is seen as an important aspect of his plan to invigorate the economy.

But the corruption allegations, while tame in comparison to the billion-dollar bribery scandal that rocked prior administrations, have weakened the government’s hand as it prepares to push for unpopular measures in Congress, such as raising the retirement age.

“If the economic agenda is successful, these wounds from the corruption issue would be less relevant,” said Gil Castello Branco, the director of a political corruption watchdog, Contas Abertas. “But Flávio is putting himself and the government in a difficult position.”

He and other analysts think the new administration will make some inroads fighting corruption, if only because of the appointment as justice minister of Sergio Moro, the judge who oversaw the large-scale bribery investigation that brought down several powerful figures.

“We are going to see advances in areas like money laundering, which is tied to organized crime and political corruption,” said Mr. Galdino, of Transparência Brasil. But the case involving Flávio Bolsonaro threatens to hamstring the administration, he said.

“His sons don’t have formal positions in the administration, but they participate in cabinet meetings, they speak on the president’s behalf in social media and they help make political appointments,” Mr. Galdino said. “If Bolsonaro can’t separate himself from his sons it will affect the credibility of his agenda for fighting corruption.”

Flávio Bolsonaro was engulfed in a new scandal as his father prepared to return from Davos. It was revealed by newspapers, and confirmed by the Rio State Legislature, that he had employed the mother and wife of a former policeman who is now accused of running a paramilitary group. But he said hiring decisions were made by his aide, Mr. Queiroz.

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