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.

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.

"He built a soccer stadium, and we have no idea how much it actually cost because there are no receipts for anything," says Pacheco. "The creditors are still asking me to be paid for the furniture in this office."

Wittler waited months for Sessim to compensate him for the materials used to build the stadium, and when the mayor kept cancelling appointments, the businessman went to Sessim's office and demanded payment.

When Wittler realized the only way he would receive any of the money he was owed would be to pay Sessim a kickback, he launched his campaign to bring him to justice.

A local radio show host broadcast his accusations, and before long other businessmen from whom Sessim had solicited "tips" joined Wittler in filing suit. The evidence was overwhelming, said prosecutors, and in 1996 a court agreed and sentenced Sessim to four years and four months in jail for misappropriation of public funds and soliciting bribes.

Because under Brazilian law sentences of less than eight years can be served in semi-open facilities, Sessim only spent nights in jail. But when he was sentenced to a further eight years for bribery in 1998, a judge ordered him arrested.

Sessim fled and is still on the run, a move unsurprising in Latin America, where convicted public officials often avoid punishment, some of them simply by moving to a neighboring country, where they are given asylum.

Sessim was later found guilty in absentia on four other charges and now faces jail time of 13 years and eight months.

Political analysts and local prosecutors are quick to point out that Rio Grande do Sul is not the most corrupt state in the country. It is simply that Rio Grande do Sul's progressive judiciary and independent institutions, along with a relatively educated and diligent population, have made pursuing villains easier.

The effort has been helped by a unique court established to hear cases against mayors. Until 1993 trials of public officials took years to conclude, due to the heavy volume of cases. But the new court deals exclusively in trying errant mayors and has been so successful that several states are considering copying the system.

"There is no way we could have done this without the new court," said Daniel Sperb, one of the three prosecutors who brought the case against Sessim. "Condemnations used to be rare, but people began to see that under this new system people were being jailed. There was an avalanche of accusations because people could see it was worth their while. Now they are motivated."

Gasparini, of the Brazilian Association of Municipalities, said only a fraction of Brazil's 5,507 mayors are guilty of serious crimes. He pointed out that many of those facing trial or expulsion are accused of relatively minor procedural or administrative offenses - because "small and poor municipalities don't always have the technical and legal experts to interpret our complex laws," said Gasparini, himself the three-time mayor of Ribeiro Preto, a city of about half a million people in So Paulo state. "There was a time when the mayor made sure the streets were clean, tended the cemetery and looked after the main square." Today, thanks to the decentralization, public administration, education, health, public sanitation (and) social programs are all now the responsibility of municipalities. Small towns are still adapting.

Meanwhile, Cidreira is still adapting to life without Sessim. His administration ran up an $8 million debt, the second highest in the state, and is still struggling to pay off creditors. With a new election coming up in October, Pacheco will stand down and let someone else clean up the rest of the mess.

The irony is that the responsibility could go to another Sessim: The former mayor's wife, Custodia, is in the running.

"One day it will get better," mused Wittler. "But we have so many politicians who are corrupt. We are starting to find some justice. But it is a slow process."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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