Brazil cries basta to graft at grass roots
When he took over as mayor of Cidreira in 1994, Eloi Bras Sessim pledged to build a hospital, a public square, a town hall, and a 30,000-capacity sports stadium that, he boasted, would soon play host to a professional soccer team.Skip to next paragraph
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Local businessman Henrique Wittler liked those ideas. The two men had dinner, hit it off and a few months later, Mr. Wittler's construction company was trucking in the bricks, iron and wood that would help modernize the picturesque coastal town.
Little did Wittler know that the mayor would try to use those public projects to line his pockets.
Three years and an investigation later, Sessim would be convicted on bribery charges, in one of many grass-roots anticorruption cases that have sprouted from Brazil's effort to clean up national government. In the last year alone, a federal deputy and a senator have been expelled from office, and hundreds of mayors, state lawmakers, and city councillors have gone the same way. "This is a sign of the new times," said Welson Gasparini, president of the Brazilian Association of Municipalities. "Today, there is a greater demand for cleaner public officials and a more strenuous monitoring by the police, the public and the press. It's all good for democracy."
It was Wittler who fought to have Cidreira convicted. The businessman had supplied more than $100,000 worth of building materials for Sessim's ambitious projects before finally receiving a first payment from the mayor - of only $10,000. The mayor told Wittler he would receive the rest only if he handed over a 12 percent "tip."
"I was furious," a still angry Wittler said last week. "I said to him, 'You are a disgrace; you are corrupt, and I will see you in court.' "
After an exhaustive investigation that found construction work was carried out without receipts and that creditors who didn't hand over a commission didn't get paid, Sessim was found guilty of soliciting bribes and sentenced to eight years in jail, just one of seven convictions resulting from his stewardship of Cidreira.
In Brazil, where wide income disparities and a history of colonialism and dictatorships have made power something to be feared instead of challenged, it was once rare to see politicians facing formal accusations of wrongdoing.
But in Brazil, as in much of Latin America, citizens are now asking searching questions of their politicians and for the first time challenging longstanding systems of political patronage and bribes.
Anticorruption investigations in Brazil have been fueled by popular resentment against politicians following the 1992 ouster of then-President Fernando Collor de Mello for taking kickbacks.
Last year, Hildebrando Pascoal, a federal deputy from the remote Amazonian state of Acre, was expelled from office after a congressional investigation heard evidence he trafficked cocaine and led a death squad. Just a few weeks ago, the upper chamber made history when its members voted to expel one of its members, Senator Luiz Estevo, after concluding his construction company pocketed up to US$95 million earmarked for building a new court house in So Paulo.
The high-profile investigations emboldened citizens on a local level, and in towns and cities across the country, hundreds of mayors have been accused of crimes ranging from extortion to nepotism. Here in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil's southernmost state, 112 of the state's 467 mayors have been found guilty of wrongdoing and expelled from office since 1994.
Sessim's is one of the more clear-cut cases. Upon taking office as elected mayor of Cidreira on Jan. 1, 1994, he undertook a series of major public works programs, including, most spectacularly, constructing the soccer stadium, with a capacity to hold four times the town's population of 8,000. The problem, says Cidreira's new Mayor Elimar Pacheco, was that no one really knew how the work was financed.