Public Rage Catching Up With Brazil’s Congress

Public Rage Catching Up With Brazil’s Congress

RIO DE JANEIRO — One politician was elected to Brazil’s Congress while under investigation for murder after having an adversary killed with a chain saw. Another is wanted by Interpol after being found guilty of diverting more than $10 million from a public road project to offshore bank accounts.

And Brazil’s highest court, the Supreme Federal Tribunal, convicted another congressman of having poor female constituents, who could not afford more children, surgically sterilized in exchange for their votes.

Across the nation, protesters keep taking to the streets by the thousands, venting their anger at a broad range of politicians and problems, including high taxes and deplorable public services. But a special ire has been reserved for Congress and its penchant for sheltering dozens of generously paid legislators who have been charged — and sometimes even convicted — of crimes like money laundering, bribery, drug trafficking, kidnapping and murder.

“Congress is without a doubt the most despised institution in Brazil,” said Maurício Santoro, a political scientist. “A good deal of this hatred is related to the fact that Congress has a tradition of preventing its own members convicted of crimes from ever going to jail.”

Almost 200 legislators, or a third of Brazil’s Congress, are facing charges in trials overseen by the Supreme Federal Tribunal, according to documents compiled by Congresso em Foco, a prominent watchdog group. The charges range from siphoning off public funds to far more serious claims of employing slave labor on a cattle estate or ordering the kidnapping of three Roman Catholic priests as part of a land dispute in the Amazon.

Scholars of Brazil’s judicial system say legislators in corruption scandals often avoid jail, in part because of the special judicial standing enjoyed by about 700 senior political figures in the country, including all 594 members of Congress and senior cabinet members.

The standing allows these people to be tried only in the Supreme Federal Tribunal, producing years of delays in an institution bogged down by many other pressing matters in Brazilian society. Until 2001, politicians could not even be tried without the authorization of Congress, a function of the deference traditionally paid to elected officials in the legal system.

As longstanding frustrations with corruption boil over on Brazil’s streets this month, protesters have clashed with security forces in front of Congress, with some dancing on the roof in a brazen repudiation that stunned the nation.

Just as surprising to many Brazilians, Congress is now scrambling to cobble together a response. This week, legislators approved a bill to use oil royalties for education and health care. The Senate, the upper house of Congress, gave its nod to stiffer penalties for corruption, and the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, shot down an attempt to rein in corruption investigators. Senators are elected for eight-year terms, while members of the Chamber of Deputies serve four-year terms.

Also, a powerful congressional committee approved a measure to lift the veil of secrecy when lawmakers vote on whether to strip fellow members of Congress of their seats.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Federal Tribunal ordered the immediate arrest of Natan Donadon, a congressman found guilty in 2010 of embezzlement — a rare attempt to try to imprison a sitting congressman. The last time the high court made a similar move was during the military dictatorship in 1974, when justices ordered a legislator arrested for opposing a visit by the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Still, the fury builds in one protest after another.

“These wolves, that trash over there, they rob the people, they feast on the meat of the people by stealing public money destined to do things for us,” said Caio Fabio de Oliveira, 45, a civil servant in the Health Ministry, who was among the demonstrators against Congress this week in the capital, Brasília. “It is shameful for the Brazilian people; I work for the government, and I’m ashamed every day.”

Brazil’s Congress has a long history of behavior among its members that has contributed to such feelings of anger. In 1963, Senator Arnon de Mello shot dead a fellow legislator on the Senate floor, only to escape imprisonment, since the killing was considered an accident because he was aiming at another senator.

That gun-wielding senator’s son, Fernando Collor de Mello, was elected president of Brazil in 1989 and impeached amid a flurry of corruption charges in 1992. Yet in a political resurrection that dismayed anticorruption activists, he was elected to the Senate in 2006 and retains his seat, even as he remains embroiled in a case in the Supreme Federal Tribunal in which he is accused of profiting from an advertising contract scheme during his brief presidency.

Even when lawmakers are convicted and sentenced for crimes, it can be difficult for them to lose their seats.

José Genoino Guimarães Neto, the former president of the governing Workers Party, was sentenced to almost seven years in prison in 2012 for his role in a vast vote-buying scheme. But he and three other legislators found guilty in the scandal avoided expulsion from the lower house after party leaders resisted the high court’s order for them to be unseated.

Despite the prosecutor general’s contention that the convicted officials should have begun serving their sentences immediately after the court announced them in November, no one has gone to jail yet for the scheme, which was revealed to the public eight years ago, in 2005.

“In a universe where corrupt politicians are seldom removed from office, there are few institutional incentives for effective oversight and punishment,” said Matthew Taylor, an expert on Brazil’s legal system at American University in Washington.

Some crimes by lawmakers have been impossible to brush off.

Talvane Alburquerque, a legislator from Alagoas in northeast Brazil, was found guilty in 2012 of ordering the murder in 1998 of another member of Congress, Ceci Cunha. That killing allowed Mr. Alburquerque, Ms. Cunha’s stand-in, to temporarily take her seat in Brasília. An appeals court rejected this month a request from Mr. Alburquerque to be paroled from prison.

Then there is Hildebrando Pascoal, commonly called the “chain saw congressman.” When he ran for office, it was public knowledge that he was being investigated for operating a death squad in a remote corner of the Amazon, employing tactics like throwing victims into vats of acid or dismembering them with chain saws. But he still won by a large margin and served in Congress before he was stripped of his seat, convicted and sent to prison.

Beyond the criminal charges, voters have expressed disdain for the benefits enjoyed by congressmen, including salaries of more than $175,000 a year; generous stipends equaling almost that amount for items like housing, gasoline and electoral research; and budgets allowing them to hire as many as 25 aides each.

The frustration toward traditional politicians is so high that Congress now includes Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva, a professional clown better known as Tiririca, or Grumpy, who was elected in 2010 to Brazil’s lower house with more ballots in his favor than any candidate in the nation’s history.

In fact, candidates from outside the establishment have been making inroads in Congress, illustrating how an institution once dominated by powerful landowners has grown more diverse. Prominent legislators now include Romário de Souza Faria, the former soccer star who is now condemning Brazil’s costly preparations for the 2014 World Cup — a rallying cry for protesters around the nation — and Jean Wyllys de Matos Santos, an openly gay member of the lower house who has emerged as an important voice on human rights issues.

But for every such newcomer, there are established power brokers in Congress who seem to remain impervious to the calls on the streets for a radical overhaul of the legislature.

One legislator who has become a target of scorn in the protests is Renan Calheiros, who resigned as president of the Senate in 2007 amid reports that a lobbyist paid for the child support of his daughter from an extramarital affair with a journalist who posed in the Brazilian edition of Playboy.

At the time, Mr. Calheiros, who denied the claims, comfortably survived a vote forced by some senators trying to oust him from their chamber. This year, he returned to his previous post as the Senate’s president, seemingly unscathed by the scandal until his name starting appearing, alongside insults, on the signs held aloft by protesters. He remains in his post.

“Congress thinks they are the owners of the country,” said Laila Oliveira, 30, a high school teacher who lives near Brasília. “And they are not.”


Lucy Jordan contributed reporting from Brasília, and Lis Horta Moriconi from Rio de Janeiro.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 28, 2013

An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a legislator from northeast Brazil who was found guilty in 2012 of ordering the 1998 murder of another lawmaker. He is Talvane Alburquerque, not Albuquerque.