Brazilians Applaud Congressional Corruption Probe

AS with other nations that have recently targeted corrupt officials, from South Korea to Italy, the Brazilian Congress' three-month probe of its own legislature has successfully produced a healthy list of culpable congressmen.

The anticorruption investigation, fueled by a popular resentment against politicians following the 1992 ouster of then-President Fernando Collor de Mello, was prompted by accusations from former Federal Budget Director Jose Alves dos Santos that 29 politicians had been stealing from the federal treasury since 1989.

In its concluding report last week, a congressional inquiry commission that probed 130 people, including almost 100 congressmen and their 349 bank accounts, surprised many Brazilians by recommending unanimously the impeachment of 18 legislators (17 federal deputies and one senator). Ten members of Congress who had been accused were not incriminated. Another 24 politicians and businessmen will continue to be investigated.

``There were many people who were beginning to think that nothing would come of the investigation,'' says University of Sao Paulo political science professor Francisco Weffort. ``The Congress had to prove that they could do it. They'd never punished themselves before.''

Indeed, many had feared that the politicians would resign before they could be implicated, as happened in the case of President Itamar Franco's chief of staff, Henrique Hargreaves, who stepped down in October after charges surfaced of his alleged involvement. He was later absolved of his guilt.

For Brazilians, who had already taken the difficult step of impeaching their first democratically elected president in 25 years, it was heartening to see Congress act effectively to cleanse itself. But it was shocking to see some of the same men who oversaw President Collor's ouster for influence-peddling caught in this scandal.

The country was particularly stunned by the implication of Federal Deputy Ibsen Pinherio, a respected figure who had commanded the Collor impeachment. During the investigation, Mr. Pinherio was unable to explain why he moved $1.2 million into his bank account ($850,000 more than this annual income), where he got $60,000 for an apartment, or why he paid a $35,000 debt to another member of Congress involved in the scheme.

Federal Deputy Joao Alves, believed to be head of the corruption ring, offered an inventive explanation for money in his possession: He claimed that he made his fortune by winning the lottery 200 times.

Some of the congressmen received kickbacks from contractors who were granted public works projects around the country. Others apparently pocketed money allocated for nonexistent projects in Brazil's poorest communities.

The parliamentary commission was eager to release its report well ahead of both a constitutional reform effort, due to be completed by Congress on March 15, and the presidential election campaign leading up to an October ballot.

The March constitutional review will include proposed changes that could help do away with government corruption, such as the end of political immunity (allowing corrupt politicians to be criminally punished), and a ban on candidates changing parties (which some have done in exchange for political favors).

The corruption scandal is likely to have a significant impact on the presidential race. The majority of members of Congress named for impeachment were from Brazil's largest and oldest party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMBD).

``Without a doubt, the PMDB was hurt by the CPI [Parliamentary Inquiry Commission],'' Mr. Weffort says. Unless the right-wing parties can offer a candidate with a reputation for ethics, Weffort adds, Luis Ignacio (Lula) da Silva, the left-wing Workers Party candidate, is likely to win the presidency. Public opinion polls put Mr. Da Silva in the lead with 30 percent of the vote. A December poll of 101 members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Sao Paulo showed that 49 percent think he will win.

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