An investigation into what prosecutors call the biggest corruption scandal ever uncovered in Brazil won Supreme Court approval to expand to dozens of top politicians for alleged ties to a kickback scheme at the state-run energy company.
In a significant expansion of the probe, the new phase of the inquiry will focus on a former president, the leaders of the house and senate and 51 other figures but the number is expected to expand as federal prosecutors dig into political ties to the scheme that they say saw at least USD 800 million in bribes and other funds paid by big construction and engineering firms in return for inflated contracts with Petrobras.
The investigation and any possible trials will take years to play out, but the action throws the young second term of President Dilma Rousseff into further disarray as she faces dueling political and economic crises. She is not being investigated, although she was chairwoman of the Petrobras board for several years as the kickback scheme played out.
Experts say the investigations could create further gridlock in congress just as Brazil and its sputtering economy desperately need fiscal and political reform measures passed.
But the investigation is widely viewed as a necessary evil for the nation’s democracy to advance and shake off deep-rooted impunity for the rich and powerful.
“You can’t put this genie back in the bottle. People are going to have to face the consequences,” said Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “There used to be the idea that people in positions of power in Brazil were untouchable. They’re no longer untouchable.”
Federal investigators revealed a year ago that they had started an investigation into the scheme, and efforts until now focused efforts on construction and engineering firms that allegedly paid big money to get inflated contracts with Petrobras. Prosecutors say some of the cash flowed into the campaign coffers of the president’s Workers’ Party and its allies.
During the first phase of the inquiry, investigators struck plea bargain deals with several “operators” who said they helped move the money around in the deals, along with former top Petrobras executives who admitted raking in hundreds of millions in bribes. That testimony paved the way for the opening of investigations into politicians who allegedly benefited from kickbacks.