Why congressional investigation committees are important again

. Sep 24, 2019
Why congressional investigation committees are important again Brazil's Congress. Photo: Antonio Salaverry

For years, parliamentary investigation committees (CPI) were political instruments feared by governments. In the early 1990s, the Fernando Collor administration began to crumble once corruption revelations came to light in a CPI to investigate his campaign treasurer. Years later, another such CPI—investigating fraud in the federal budget—led to the impeachment of six lawmakers. In 2005 and 2006, another committee exposed a bribery scheme within the Lula administration—nearly bringing down his government.

With time, however, CPIs have evolved into a spectacle more aimed at impressing voters and airing dirty laundry in public, rather than serious investigations. As Euan Marshall wrote in February, “the bark of a CPI is, more often than not, much worse than its bite.”

</p> <p>That has to do with the falling quality of public debate in Brazil, but also with the increasing role of other accountability institutions, such as the Federal Police, Federal Prosecution Office, Federal Revenue Service, and the money laundering enforcement agency (Coaf).&nbsp;</p> <p>But now, under Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s presidency, the CPI is regaining prominence.</p> <p>This change is partially due to the <a href="">sitting administration&#8217;s efforts to deplete accountability agencies</a> and hinder their operations. Mr. Bolsonaro has essentially neutered Coaf (ordering an overhaul of its members), he is trying to interfere with the workings of the Federal Police, and has named a prosecutor general who has promised to act more as a sycophant than an independent investigator.</p> <p>The resurgence of the CPI also comes down to Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s struggles to build a working coalition in Congress. His anti-politics stance has been an invitation for the Legislature to take a more prominent role, imposing its agenda on the government, rather than acting as a glorified annex of the presidential palace, as was the case in previous years.</p> <p>At this moment, four different CPIs are operating (or could soon be launched)—and all of them could be highly detrimental to powerful political groups.</p> <h2><em>&#8220;Lava Toga&#8221;:</em> probing the judiciary</h2> <p>For a third time, senators are pushing to open a <a href=",cpi-da-lava-toga-o-que-e-e-qual-seu-objetivo,70003009385">CPI</a> into the activities of Brazil&#8217;s high courts. The investigation&#8217;s <em>Lava Toga</em> nickname promises an Operation Car Wash-style (&#8220;<em>Lava Jato&#8221;) </em>probe into the work of Supreme Court justices—whose robes are called <em>togas </em>in Portuguese. Of all impending investigations, this is the one with the most explosive potential, risking a civil war between different branches of power.</p> <p>This CPI request has split the far-right, placing many of President Bolsonaro&#8217;s supporters in Congress at odds with the president&#8217;s own family. Senator Flávio Bolsonaro reportedly tried to convince fellow members of the Social Liberal Party (PSL) to remove their support for the committee. He has been benefited by a recent Supreme Court decision putting a halt to money laundering investigations, and fears that a Senate investigation could make him a target of justices&#8217; wrath.</p> <p>Judges and prosecutors have accused defenders of the CPI of trying to gag them, as high courts are the only jurisdictions which may investigate federal politicians. On the other hand, the judiciary branch has been fairly immune to oversight—and many of its members have committed repeated ethical violations, such as ruling on cases involving spouses, sons, and close personal friends. Also, justices do not recuse themselves in cases involving companies which pay for their lectures.</p> <p>Moreover, judges at all levels are known for bending the rules in order to get more benefits, such as housing allowances.</p> <p>However, this CPI could be shelved once more due to a violation committed by senators. The request to open the investigation includes a call for the possibility to scrutinize verdicts— which is an unconstitutional move against the independence of judges.</p> <h2><em>&#8220;Vaza Jato&#8221;</em>: Moro on the stand</h2> <p>The leaks of private messages between members of Operation Car Wash has been a scandal roaring since early June—once again earning a clever Car Wash-based nickname: <em>Vaza Jato</em>, riffing on the Portuguese verb for &#8220;leak,&#8221; <em>vazar</em>. The <a href="">revelations</a> published by <em>The Intercept</em> revealed many wrongdoings by members of the prosecution and former judge Sergio Moro (who became Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s Justice Minister after leaving the bench), showing they colluded against some Car Wash defendants.</p> <p>Sponsored by left-leaning parties who demand the exoneration of former President Lula (convicted of corruption and money laundering by Mr. Moro), this CPI request has also been endorsed by members of the &#8220;<a href="">Big Center</a>,&#8221; a group of center-right politicians focused on milking the government for the right to name allies to executive positions.</p> <script src="" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>Operation Car Wash prosecutors denounce the move as an attempt to undermine anti-corruption efforts. That is true, to a certain extent—however, the leaks <em>did</em> show that the Car Wash task force and Mr. Moro, overstepped their role and jeopardized the validity of many cases against corrupt companies and politicians.</p> <p>Supporters of the investigation have already gathered enough signatures to launch a CPI, but they need the green light from House Speaker Rodrigo Maia—who has not yet signaled whether he will go in their favor.</p> <h2>Probing the BNDES &#8220;black box&#8221;</h2> <p>Brazil&#8217;s National Development Bank (BNDES) has traditionally been used by multiple administrations as a piggy bank, helping to create local monopolies by way of <a href="">subsidized credit to wealthy groups</a>. A CPI into the bank&#8217;s activities, however, has conveniently defined its scope to between 2003 and 2015—that is, solely during the Workers&#8217; Party era.</p> <p>“Among the numerous scandals linked to the Workers&#8217; Party administrations—the Lula and Dilma [Rousseff] governments, already targeted by several inquiries and cases in several instances—there is use of the BNDES to finance companies and business groups, also in activities developed abroad, in an evident use of funds as currency to justify potentially illicit political bargains as well as virtual cases of unjust enrichment,&#8221; says the request.</p> <p>The committee is approaching the end of its deposition phase and, <a href="">according to CPI chairman Vanderlei Macris</a>, &#8220;it is expected to recommend the indictment of several former Workers&#8217; Party officials.&#8221;</p> <h2>&#8220;Anti-fake news&#8221; investigation</h2> <p>This committee aims at shedding light on the spreading of <a href="">false information</a> on social media and messaging apps, such as WhatsApp. This probe has been fiercely opposed by Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s allies—who relied heavily on social media fear-mongering as a campaign weapon in 2018. The <a href="">president&#8217;s campaign is under investigation</a> by the Superior Electoral Court, for allegedly using dummy WhatsApp accounts to spread dirt on his opposition.</p> <p>The committee has approved a motion to take depositions from representatives of tech giants in Brazil, such as Google, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Telegram. They also threaten to summon <a href="">Carlos Bolsonaro</a>, a Rio de Janeiro city councilor and the president&#8217;s second-eldest son. He is his father&#8217;s equivalent of a social media manager, and reportedly led Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s online campaign.</p> <script src="" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>In a rare display of unity, members of Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s Social Liberal Party have been adamantly against this CPI, trying at all costs to block its work and redirect its efforts from the 2018 campaign to the recent hacking of authorities&#8217; cell phones.

Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

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