The integrity at the heart of Brazil’s anti-corruption sweep

A few youthful and often US-educated prosecutors have unearthed Brazil’s largest corruption scandal by challenging a deep culture of impunity. They are a model for other nations also in need of honest governance.

Brazilian demonstrators attend a Dec. 13 protest in Sao Paulo calling for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff.

A young Harvard-educated prosecutor in Brazil named Deltan Dallagnol is hardly known outside his country. Yet he and his team of public lawyers are a model for what many countries can only wish for. They have challenged a deep tradition in Brazil to look the other way at corruption in high places, an attitude Mr. Dallagnol calls “the murky waters of cynicism.” Over the past three years, his team has turned a major kickback scandal at the state-run oil company, Petrobras, into a hope that Brazil can end its centuries-old culture of impunity.

The scandal has already led to charges against dozens of top business executives and legislators in a scheme involving inflated contracts at Latin America’s biggest corporation and which funneled cash to politicians. One billionaire banker is already in jail. Speakers of both houses of the National Congress are being investigated. And the political ricochet from the probe, dubbed Operation Car Wash, has resulted in impeachment proceedings being opened Dec. 2 against President Dilma Rousseff.

Last March, nearly a million Brazilians took to the streets in protest as the scandal began to touch the ruling Workers’ Party. Another protest was held last Sunday in support of removing Ms. Rousseff, who was the head of Petrobras during the years of the scandal (although she is not being investigated and denies wrongdoing).

While the scandal itself is huge, perhaps involving $700 million or more in bribes and kickbacks, more remarkable is the courage of the nine prosecutors, led by Dallagnol, to stand up against an ingrained system of corruption and maintain their integrity and independence. Dallagnol says he went to Harvard Law School at age 22 to learn about American jurisprudence in hopes of reforming his country. (A fellow prosecutor has a law degree from Cornell University.) One legal tool they imported: the use of plea bargains to extract information from low-level participants in an organized crime.

Anti-corruption efforts in several big countries, such as India and China, are being led by politicians. In Brazil, which is the world’s seventh largest economy, the effort relies mainly on professional prosecutors who seek a cultural revolution. Dallagnol, for example, has asked for new laws to give prosecutors even more tools to ferret out corruption.

Whether this sweeping investigation results in Brazilians electing clean politicians or refusing to pay petty bribes remains to be seen. But so far they are inspired by the refreshing and stubborn moral stance of the Dallagnol prosecutors. And the rest of the world should be, too.

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