Jair Bolsonaro was elected president on October 28, promising to crack down on corruption and end political patronage. But even before taking office, Mr. Bolsonaro and his family are involved in a case that hits too close to home for Brazilians fed up with the same old practices by politicians.
The case surrounds the financial activity of a former advisor and driver of Senator-elect Flávio Bolsonaro, Fabrício Queiroz. Monthly deposits made into the bank account of Mr. Queiroz coincide with the dates of salary payments of public servants at the Rio de Janeiro Legislative Assembly, reinforcing the suspicion that the ex-advisor was responsible for handling part of the paychecks of Flávio Bolsonaro’s office within the state legislature.
A report by Coaf, Brazil’s money laundering enforcement council, showed that Mr. Queiroz made a total of 176 cash withdrawals from his bank account in 2016, an average of two per day. On August 10, 2016, for instance, the former advisor made five withdrawals, totaling BRL 18,450. According to the money laundering enforcement agency, transfers in cash are typically used in order to conceal the identities of the source and recipient of the funds. One of the transactions in question involved a BRL 24,000 check to future First Lady Michelle Bolsonaro.
So far, the elements of this case point to a very-known practice in Brazilian legislative houses: staff working in lawmakers’ cabinets are obligated to return part of their salaries to the legislators employing them. It is a sort of compensation for their employment. And the money is often used to pay for the politicians’ personal (or campaign) expenses. Another element that garners suspicions in relation to the scheme is the fact that most transactions happened close to Mr. Bolsonaro’s staff’s payday.
The Coaf report was produced at the request of federal prosecutors, who are investigating suspect cash operations of civil servants working in Rio de Janeiro’s state legislature. The same report listed “atypical” transactions from 75 aides working for 20 state lawmakers, from parties of both the right and the left.
What will happen
Officially, neither Mr. Queiroz nor Flávio Bolsonaro is under investigation. But the Coaf findings have led other people to be indicted and prosecutors want Mr. Queiroz to clarify his transactions. He will be questioned next week. The Senator-elect could also be indicted by prosecutors, without the need for authorization from the Supreme Court. In May 2018, a Supreme Court majority decided that senators are only shielded from lower courts in cases related to their terms in office, which is not the case here.
Although the case is only at the beginning, the President-elect himself got involved by saying that the BRL 24,000 deposit to the first lady was actually for him, stating it was the settling of a debt. If this case grows bigger, it could be the first hit the future administration will take.
Same old politics
This scheme in which lawmakers force their staff to surrender part of their paychecks is known in Brazil as a “rachid scheme.” The most recent case of the sort comes from the lower house of Congress, involving Congressman Lúcio Vieira Lima (the one who, alongside his brother, stashed BRL 51 million in bags of money inside a flat in Salvador). The Federal Police found out that Mr. Vieira Lima collected up to 80 percent of his staff’s salaries.
In 2015, a state lawmaker from Rio Grande do Sul was indicted in 2015 for running a similar scheme, raising up to BRL 800,000 per year. In Goiás, three lawmakers were also indicted. They took 90 percent of their staff’s pay, who, as compensation, didn’t need to show up for work to get the remaining 10 percent of their salary. In the current case involving Flávio Bolsonaro, another of his aides was living in Portugal for 248 days while still receiving a salary as an employee of Mr. Bolsonaro’s office.
Despite this case, or with Mr. Bolsonaro’s cabinet filled with men under corruption investigations, voters continue to show optimism about the future administration. They could rapidly find themselves disillusioned.