Anti-corruption drive floundering under Bolsonaro, says ex-minister

Efforts to stamp out corruption in Brazil have floundered since President Jair Bolsonaro took office, according to the country’s former justice minister who also spearheaded the long-running Lava Jato graft probe.

Sérgio Moro, whose resignation from the government in April triggered an investigation into Mr Bolsonaro, is one of Brazil’s most recognisable public figures and widely expected to stand for the presidency in 2022.

“The anti-corruption agenda has suffered setbacks since 2018,” when Mr Bolsonaro was elected, Mr Moro told the Financial Times. “One of the reasons I left the government was because it wasn’t doing much. They were using my presence as an excuse, so I left.”

He added: “I don’t think it works to fight corruption when you don’t respect the rule of law and when you don’t respect the autonomy of the law agencies who investigate and prosecute crimes.”

Mr Moro’s appointment as justice minister bolstered Mr Bolsonaro’s support among right and centre-right wing Brazilians, who admired his pursuit of justice as the lead judge in the Lava Jato, or Car Wash, investigation. Scores of prominent politicians and businessmen, including leftwing former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, were jailed as part of the probe.

However, Mr Moro’s departure from the government, following claims that Mr Bolsonaro interfered with the autonomy of the federal police by firing its commander, sparked a Supreme Court investigation into whether the president engaged in influence-peddling and obstruction of justice.

Sérgio Moro, centre, with President Jair Bolsonaro, right, and vice-president Hamilton Mourão, left, in February Sérgio Moro, centre, with President Jair Bolsonaro, right, and vice-president Hamilton Mourão, left, in February © Adriano Machado/Reuters

Mr Bolsonaro has denied the allegations and insisted it was within his powers to fire the police chief. But this has not stopped speculation by political analysts that the move was an attempt to protect his sons from looming investigations.

“He changed the director of the federal police without my opinion and without good cause. That was not a good case of the president respecting the rule of law,” said Mr Moro, who has refused to comment on whether he will challenge Mr Bolsonaro in the next election. 

Although the scandal precipitated Mr Moro’s exit, he said his decision was also influenced by what he saw as the government’s lack of commitment to anti-corruption and passing crucial reforms in Congress.

“To move on this anti-corruption agenda, we need strong political will because you will face a lot of special interests, sometimes in powerful positions, people who were involved with crimes in the past. If you don’t have strong political will, your efforts will fail,” he said.

He added: “The real question is, are we now pushing forward with the anti-corruption agenda or are we still facing setbacks?”

Mr Bolsonaro, a former army captain, stood in 2018 on an anti-corruption platform and pledged to do away with the “old politics” of patronage and horse-trading that have long characterised Brazilian politics.

However, his credentials were tarnished by Mr Moro’s claims about alleged interference in the federal police and, more recently, by allegations that one of his sons ran a graft scheme while he was as a city councillor in Rio de Janeiro.

Mr Bolsonaro has also raised eyebrows by forming a political alliance with the Centrão, a controversial bloc of parties known for offering support in exchange for political appointments. Several politicians within the group were also ensnared in the Car Wash investigations.

“At the beginning, the government seemed to avoid this kind of practice [of exchanging patronage for support] but nowadays I’m not that sure,” said Mr Moro.

Mr Moro said the Car Wash probe, which started in 2014 in the southern city of Curitiba before expanding across Latin America, was significant because it ended the “total impunity for corruption” that had existed in Brazil.

The investigation uncovered a vast contracts-for-kickbacks scheme involving scores of high-profile politicians and businesspeople and contributed to the impeachment of then Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff.

The probe is still continuing, although its reputation was damaged last year by the release of hacked messages from Mr Moro’s phone which showed the then judge coaching prosecutors on how to tackle the case against Mr Lula da Silva.

“I don’t recognise the authenticity of those messages . . . there was nothing there that could compromise the case,” said Mr Moro.

The lack of momentum for criminal justice reforms within the Bolsonaro administration — combined with an emerging probe by the attorney-general’s office into whether prosecutors overstepped their mandates in the Car Wash investigations — has prompted widespread predictions that the long-running inquiry will soon end.

“At some point, it will be over like any other kind of criminal investigation,” said Mr Moro, while adding that “I really believe Brazilian people support this [approach], so it will not be difficult to recover the right path.”

Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice