Brazil­ian au­thor­i­ties dis­solve team that in­ves­ti­gates high-level cor­rup­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY MA­RINA LOPES for­eign@wash­post.com

sao paulo, brazil — Brazil’s fed­eral po­lice have an­nounced that they are shut­ting down the task force be­hind Op­er­a­tion Car Wash, a be­he­moth cor­rup­tion probe that has sent dozens of top politi­cians and busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives to jail.

The task force, which has been oper­at­ing as an independent unit, will be ab­sorbed into a larger anti-cor­rup­tion divi­sion. Fed­eral po­lice shrugged off the move as bu­reau­cratic reshuf­fling, but crit­ics la­beled the de­ci­sion an at­tempt to un­der­mine an in­ves­ti­ga­tion that is redefin­ing Brazil’s po­lit­i­cal land­scape.

In three years, Op­er­a­tion Car Wash bal­looned from a mon­ey­laun­der­ing probe fo­cused on a Brasilia gas sta­tion into the coun­try’s big­gest cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Through plea deals, the task force was able to trace bribery and cor­rup­tion to the high­est ech­e­lons of gov­ern­ment. To­day, the probe threat­ens to top­ple the coun­try’s pres­i­dent, Michel Te­mer, who is be­ing in­ves­ti­gated along with a third of the mem­bers of Brazil’s se­nate, dozens of rep­re­sen­ta­tives in its house and more than half of the pres­i­dent’s cabi­net.

The de­ci­sion is the lat­est blow to the task force, which saw its bud­get halved in May. Prose­cu­tors work­ing on the cases say the move will limit the scope of in­ves­ti­ga­tions the task force is able to take on.

“The fed­eral po­lice’s Car Wash task force, dras­ti­cally shrunk by the cur­rent gov­ern­ment, is not large enough to meet its de­mands,” prose­cu­tors said in a state­ment.

Sev­eral se­na­tors crit­i­cized the ac­tion and ques­tioned the mo­tives be­hind it. “This is a de­lib­er­ate at­tempt at ob­struc­tion of jus­tice by a pres­i­dent who is im­pli­cated in the Car Wash in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” said Ran­dolfe Ro­drigues, an op­po­si­tion se­na­tor. He called the de­ci­sion “morally of­fen­sive.”

The fed­eral po­lice ar­gued that the new setup, an­nounced Thurs­day, al­lows for greater col­lab­o­ra­tion among agents of dif­fer­ent de­part­ments and said in­ves­ti­ga­tors would not see their work­load in­crease. In a state­ment, the de­part­ment “reaf­firmed the pub­lic com­mit­ment to com­bat cor­rup­tion.”

Op­er­a­tion Car Wash has been lauded by in­ter­na­tional an­ti­cor­rup­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions as ush­er­ing in a more trans­par­ent era in Brazil­ian pol­i­tics. The task force was awarded Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional’s Anti-Cor­rup­tion Award last year, for con­vic­tions “in­clud­ing high level politi­cians and busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives pre­vi­ously con­sid­ered un­touch­able.”

The task force has been praised for mov­ing swiftly and up­end­ing an en­trenched sys­tem of bribery that has plagued Brazil for decades. Images of the task force’s of­fi­cers es­cort­ing Brazil’s most pow­er­ful peo­ple in hand­cuffs from their homes at dawn stunned Brazil­ians.

Crit­ics worry that in­te­grat­ing the task force with the wider de­part­ment will cre­ate more pa­per­work and slow down in­ves­ti­ga­tors. The fed­eral po­lice union said that the move meant the task force would lose its abil­ity to act nim­bly.

“You shouldn’t mess with a win­ning team,” the union said in a state­ment.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion has wide­spread pub­lic sup­port, which has largely shielded it from gov­ern­ment in­ter­fer­ence. A whop­ping 96 per­cent of Brazil­ians agreed that the in­ves­ti­ga­tion should con­tinue “what­ever the costs,” ac­cord­ing to a poll con­ducted in De­cem­ber.

The de­ci­sion to de­mo­bi­lize the task force comes weeks af­ter the pres­i­dent was ac­cused of ac­cept­ing $150,000 in bribes from a meat-com­pany mag­nate who was un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Te­mer, who de­nies wrong­do­ing, faces ob­struc­tion of jus­tice charges. Congress must de­cide whether to send him to trial in the Supreme Court.

Af­ter a tape sur­faced that ap­peared to im­pli­cate Te­mer in the probe in May, the pres­i­dent abruptly re­placed the min­is­ter of jus­tice, who over­sees the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, with Torquanto Jardim, a close po­lit­i­cal ally. The move drew crit­i­cism from prose­cu­tors and in­ves­ti­ga­tors who wor­ried that it was an at­tempt to sti­fle the probe. Af­ter his swear­ing-in cer­e­mony, Jardim as­sured Brazil­ians that the probe would not be politi­cized.

But with Te­mer’s ad­min­is­tra­tion hang­ing by a thread and the pres­i­dent find­ing him­self at the mercy of politi­cians who are un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion them­selves, the de­ci­sion to shut down the task force has many Brazil­ians con­cerned.

“The tim­ing makes it look like a re­tal­i­a­tion,” said Alexan­dre Ban­deira, a cam­paign strate­gist in Brasilia. “Even if it is a mere ad­min­is­tra­tive de­ci­sion, the an­nounce­ment is turn­ing heads be­cause it is a change to a sys­tem that has worked very well in the last few years — so well that it has even im­pli­cated the pres­i­dent.”

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