In March 2014, a corruption scandal emerged in Brazil with unprecedented political and judicial repercussions. Dubbed “Operation Car Wash,” the investigation has uncovered a massive bribery and money laundering scheme involving dozens of high-profile businessmen, politicians, and bureaucrats. Indeed, it first came across as a rare but effective cooperation between the Federal Police, the Federal Prosecution Office, and the Federal Justice system.
However, it has also triggered partisanship and plummeted Brazil into a serious political crisis, because a staggering amount of important politicians have become potential suspects. Since its launch two years ago, questions have been raised about the true capacity of Operation Car Wash to actually regenerate Brazilian politics.
Parallels between Brazil’s Operation Car Wash and Italy’s Operation Clean Hands (Mani Pulite) – a nationwide investigation held in the early 1990s – are inevitable. Similarities go further than just the kickback scheme using public money and the initiative of judges to attack dirty relationships between politicians and businessmen. If you know how Operation Clean Hands was conducted and how it ended, then the Brazilian case seems like déjà vu.
Our current investigations may ultimately be a waste of time, as they won’t necessarily fix the problems of a “sold democracy,” to use an expression coined by Judge Antonio Di Pietro, an icon of Operation Clean Hands.
The Brazilian and Italian investigations were both boosted by a single person who was caught and then became a whistleblower. In Italy, it was the arrest of Mario Chiesa, socialist manager of a public hospice, that led to the indictment of top-level politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen. In Brazil, the plea deal signed by Paulo Roberto Costa, the former supply director of the state-run oil company Petrobras, allowed investigators to target wealthy and powerful people.
Indeed, both investigations have targeted a considerable number of important people – people holding political and economic power, an elite class not usually held accountable or punished with harsh sentences for their wrongdoings. In Italy, 872 businessmen, 1,978 heads of city councils, and over 500 congressmen (out of 945, and including six former prime ministers) were investigated.
In Brazil, the Federal Prosecution Office charged 179 people with 37 different criminal counts. So far, the convictions amount to a combined 990 years of imprisonment. In addition, Brazil’s Attorney General asked the Supreme Court for authorization to begin prosecuting 14 senators, 22 members of the House and 13 former congressmen. Even former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is being formally investigated for allegedly having received suspicious benefits from companies with huge government contracts.
The main strategy used by the two investigations is based on the classic example of game theory, the prisoner’s dilemma. Suspects were kept in a prolonged precautionary imprisonment, something meant to persuade them into talking in exchange for some benefits. Those who decided to collaborate were rewarded – either being released or given less severe sentences. Investigators relied on the fact that wealthy people are less likely to want to endure jail time – even in the case of a house arrest – so they decided to collaborate by not only telling what was seen and
Those who decided to collaborate were rewarded – either being released or given less severe sentences. Investigators relied on the fact that wealthy people are less likely to want to endure jail time – even in the case of a house arrest – so they decided to collaborate by not only telling what was seen and done, but also by providing evidence that helped to expand the investigations considerably.
In Brazil, since Paulo Roberto Costa decided to talk, another 46 people also signed plea bargains. Furthermore, five companies have signed collaboration agreements. This action plan, however, has created controversy. Some people believe that this strategy puts the rule of law at risk, since suspects are being forced to collaborate. Prosecutors defend themselves by stating that most of those who signed plea bargains were not actually in jail when they decided to talk.
The media has also been questioned for its coverage in both cases. In both countries, it is possible to identify a steady flow of information being released to the press with details of the investigation – even classified information. This has helped maintain the interest of the general public and, at the same time, has kept politicians and businessmen on their toes.
These unprecedented actions against elite members also put a spotlight on certain individuals. In Italy, Judge Antonio Di Pietro became the most popular person of the Clean Hands task force. In Brazil, the focus has been on Judge Sérgio Moro, even though the Car Wash investigation includes dozens of Federal Marshals, prosecutors and the Supreme Court (the only institution capable of prosecuting politicians at the federal level). Moro has been collecting fans – as well as critics – since the investigation began. He is responsible for signing arrest orders against important individuals, and has also made public the recorded phone taps between President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor, Lula da Silva.
Judge Di Pietro, the most popular name of Operation Clean Hands
Moro’s inspiration has always been Operation Clean Hands, as plus55 has already shown. He published a paper highlighting the strongest points of the Italian case that revealed the link between the political system and the mafia. The success of the Clean Hands, however, proved to be short-lived. The initial euphoria, as well as the core investigation, did not last more than two years.
At least 13 suspects committed suicide in jail. Despite of a long list of temporary arrest orders and criminal charges against thousands of people, few convictions were confirmed due to the slowness of the judiciary system and the maneuvers and loopholes in the system exploited by politicians to postpone final sanctions.
The investigators began to come across as vigilantes. Judge Di Pietro, for instance, was accused of being politically motivated. He eventually left the judiciary system and became a politician. Finally, the investigation lost the confidence and support of the public. The same could easily happen in Brazil.
In Italy, however, at least four political parties collapsed as a direct result of the investigation. Two of them were disbanded: the centre-left Socialist Party and the left-wing Christian Democracy. In Brazil, there is so far no sign that political parties are threatened, although members from at least 24 parties will need to explain their suspicious relationships with businessmen.
The political void created in Italy did not lead to the rise of cleaner politicians. Corruption scandals, such as the ones surrounding former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, continued to be part of the Italian political landscape. In addition, Operation Clean Hands has also deepened the conflict between the justice system and the political establishment. The latter has since approved laws to reduce the independence and the capacity of the justice system to investigate economic crimes.
Operation Clean Hands did not regenerate Italian politics. Despite numerous ongoing scandals, corruption has not been at the center of the political debate for elected officers and citizens. Indeed, it had the opposite effect: it seemed to have increased tolerance for corruption.
In Brazil, the future is still uncertain. Brazilians investigators should learn from the mistakes of their Italian counterparts so that our country won’t waste this opportunity of improving the quality of its young democracy, restored in the 1980s after two decades of military dictatorship.