RIO DE JANEIRO — When Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was kicked out of power, she became the biggest casualty of a massive corruption probe that is roiling Latin America’s largest country — even though she was never personally implicated in the scheme.
With Rousseff’s permanent departure from the presidency on Wednesday, the big question is: What happens now to the investigation at the state oil company Petrobras?
Many of the lawmakers who voted to remove Rousseff are under investigation themselves in the scandal involving billions of dollars of kickbacks. Rousseff has charged that corrupt lawmakers wanted her out to halt the Petrobras probe.
But if the intention was to sweep everything under the rug, it’s too late, say law professors, corruption experts and political analysts.
“Politicians have lost control over that investigation,” said Carlos Pereira, a public administration professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a think tank and university in Rio de Janeiro. “(Lawmakers) know they cannot interfere.”
Indeed, between Rousseff’s suspension in May for breaking fiscal laws in managing the budget and the final judgment against her on Wednesday, prosecutors doubled the number of politicians and people connected to them under investigation, according to the attorney general’s latest numbers.
Within a month after Rousseff was suspended in May and her vice president Michel Temer took over on an interim basis, three members of his new Cabinet were forced to resign because of corruption allegations. Temer took over permanently with Rousseff’s ouster.
Known as “Car Wash,” the corruption case came to light after authorities discovered a ring of money launderers in gas stations and car washes. That led them to a much larger scheme: construction companies that paid bribes to high-ranking politicians in exchange for inflated contracts with Petrobras. The operation was so large — some $2 billion in bribes over a decade — that Petrobras even had a department dedicated to distributing illicit payments, prosecutors say.
While Rousseff has never been implicated, many accuse her of trying to protect her mentor and predecessor, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was charged in July with obstruction of justice in the probe. Many Brazilians also blame her for not doing more, as the bulk of the graft happened during the 13 years her Workers’ Party was in power.
In the last two years, dozens of business people and politicians from across the spectrum have been jailed. Fifteen of the 81 senators who voted on whether to remove Rousseff are being investigated in the Petrobras probe, including the Senate President Renan Calheiros, who has been accused of receiving bribes.
“Car Wash shows that our justice system has achieved independence and autonomy, and you don’t mess with that,” said Luiz Jorge Werneck Vianna, a professor and justice system expert at Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. “The people will not accept it.”
Battling impunity is one of the few bright spots in a nation mired in recession and bogged down by the political crisis.
Nearly one third of Brazilians see corruption as the nation’s biggest problem, a higher percentage than for any other issue, according to a July poll by Datafolha. Since early 2015, more than 2 million people have signed a petition from the attorney general’s office to introduce new laws and levy harsher sentences for corrupt public servants.
The judge presiding over the Car Wash case, Sergio Moro, has obtained hero status among many Brazilians. Recently speaking at a gathering in Washington, he said he said police, prosecutors and judges encounter strong support from average citizens but sharp opposition from lawmakers.
Deltan Dallagnol, an outspoken prosecutor in the probe, has frequently warned about any attempts in Congress to hinder investigations, thus keeping the colossal case in the public eye.
“With or without Dilma, it makes no difference to us,” he said during a recent event in the northeastern city of Recife.
ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON