Brazilian President Rousseff ousts another cabinet minister

Rousseff's purge of old-guard ministers – the latest, Nelson Jobim, resigned Thursday – shows a low tolerance for corruption, but she has not brought legal sanctions against the ousted.

Pilar Olivares/Reuters/File
Brazil's Defense Minister Nelson Jobim, shown attending a meeting during the Third South American Defense Council in Lima on May 12, resigned Thursday at the request of President Dilma Rousseff.

Over the past three months, corruption scandals and ministerial resignations have been changing the face of Brasilia. Yesterday, Defense Minister Nelson Jobim resigned after expressing dissatisfaction with President Dilma Rousseff’s handling of the military. Mr. Jobim’s departure marks the third minister to resign in the first seven months of the Rousseff administration. At the pace of nearly one minister per two-month period, Ms. Rousseff indeed appears to be cleaning house. All of these early exits have been ‘Lulistas’ - ministers who played prominent roles in the administration of President Rousseff’s benefactor, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

While it is positive to see that Rousseff is fashioning the government in her own design and forcing the exit of ministers implicated in allegations of grand corruption, the government’s unwillingness to apply real sanctions to malfeasance continues to draw attention to Brazil’s defiance of its own laws and its long legacy of impunity.

The corruption scandals of 2011 illustrate that the abuse of the public’s trust continues to be an important problem in Brazilian politics.

First it was the president’s number two, Antonio Palocci, forced to resign after he could not explain why his net worth quadrupled in four years based solely on ‘consulting contracts’ to party and government hacks.

Then it was the PR’s Alfredo Nascimento, the Minister of Transportation, who resigned after revelations that his son had received contracts worth more than $20 million dollars. Mr. Nascimento’s resignation accompanied the dismissal of 27 other officials from the same ministry.

Most recently, the Minister of Agriculture, Romero Jucá (PMDB), was summoned to answer questions in Congress after his brother revealed deposits of more than 8 million reais to ghost accounts.

The heroes emerging from these three scandals are Veja Magazine, which broke the Transportation and Agricultural scandals, and the Folha de São Paulo for being the first on top of Mr. Palocci’s irregular enrichment.

Valiant Veja

Veja’s reporting on corruption has stood out as particularly valiant. It was this magazine that broke allegations of corruption during the administration of President Fernando Collor, ultimately leading to Mr. Collor’s resignation. The article that led to these fateful events was based on an interview with the President’s brother, Pedro, in 1992. The parallel between the Collor scandal and the latest allegations surrounding the minister of agriculture is striking – both accusations of corruption originated from brothers. Veja’s talent for pitting members of Brazil’s nepotistic political families against one another should give us pause.

Veja has also provided a public service in its coverage of ministerial expense accounts. Using the government’s Transparency Portal and inside sources in various ministries, Veja has exposed just how lavishly top officials spend the public’s money. Of all the ministries, it was the minister of culture, Ana de Hollanda, who used public finances most licentiously – jetting around the country on weekends at the public’s expense.

Veja’s reporting led to an investigation by the Comptroller General and now Ms. Hollanda must repay some 45,000 reais ($30,000) of public money spent illicitly during the first semester of 2011. Brazil’s representative to the Open Government Partnership, Foreign Relations Minister Antonio Patriota, has also incurred astronomical travel expenses – 30,649 reais per day (about $20,000), according to the same article in Veja.

Dilma Facilitating Revelations?

Veja’s success in culling information about expenses from within the Federal Executive Branch is not entirely surprising; it is widely understood that the Rousseff administration has sought to clean up corruption in government, especially the portfolios of ministries held by dubious coalition allies, such as the PR (Transportation). Rousseff appears to be putting her stamp on her administration, making it ‘hers.’ She has done so by refusing to cover-up corruption or exposés; indeed she may even be encouraging them.

The congressional opposition, led by the PSDB party, has signaled that it will call five ministers to parliament, an effort to obtain answers about allegations of corruption. The government has the power to stonewall these demands, but as a recent Jornal Globo article indicates, the Rousseff administration has virtuously chosen not to do so.

Slapping Wrists

But the Rousseff administration also appears to be reluctant let anti-corruption measures pose political problems for the government’s legislative ambitions. Three officials dismissed from the Ministry of Transportation have already been exonerated, according to this report by the Folha de São Paulo. These include José Henrique Coelho Sadok de Sá, whose wife, working for the Araújo construction company, signed business deals with the Ministry of Transportation. By endorsing impunity from prosecution – in clear defiance of criminal evidence – the Rousseff government signals that it will take a soft-handed approach to corruption.

Notwithstanding the administration’s willingness to opposition grillings in parliament, it has lobbied hard against more severe measures, such as the famous Congressional Inquiry (CPI). Yesterday evening, opposition Senators had mustered enough signatures (27) to trigger a CPI. Under extreme pressure from the government, however, two Senators have retracted their commitments, according to the Folha de São Paulo. Once again, the government has privileged impunity at the cost of maintaining the support of its congressional allies.

No Media Circus

In the final calculus, the Rousseff administration appears willing to open itself up to some degree of scrutiny, and will even dismiss officials once the press has definitively placed corruption in the public spotlight. However, it is not willing to incriminate allies under the law, nor has it shown much taste for parading corruption into the limelight. The Jornal Globo quotes the President in an article published yesterday:

The government will not embrace any cases of corruption, but the government also will not pose for the media in the combat against corruption. We will combat it effectively.

Given Brazil’s commitments to the Open Government Partnership and its pending transparency deficit – a freedom of information law and a truth commission, among other measures – it behooves government to do better. As it stands, citizens lack the means to adequately monitor government (a freedom of information law). They have little choice but to put their faith in checks carried out by government itself and the scandalous, albeit valiant, revelations of Veja Magazine.

--- Greg Michener, based in Rio de Janeiro, writes the blog, Observing Brazil. He is currently writing a book on Freedom of Information in Latin America for Cambridge University Press.

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