The former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva during a news conference in March. Credit Lalo de Almeida for The New York Times
By Simon Romero, New York Times
Rio De Janeiro - Federal prosecutors in Brazil filed corruption charges Wednesday against Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former president who has wielded influence across Latin America for decades, portraying him as the mastermind of a sprawling graft scheme intended to maintain his party’s grip on the presidency.
Deltan Dallagnol, a prosecutor, called Mr. da Silva the “ultimate commander” of bribery and kickback schemes that allowed his leftist Workers’ Party to build coalitions in Congress, describing him as “the general” at the helm.
The actual charges against Mr. da Silva, who was president from 2003 to 2010, focus on a much narrower claim: Prosecutors accuse Mr. da Silva and his wife of illegally receiving about $1.1 million in improvements and expenses for a beachfront apartment paid for by a large construction company seeking public contracts.
But beyond the specific charges, which must still be accepted by a judge, the prosecutors said Mr. da Silva had been instrumental in a bigger corruption scheme that has thrown Brazil’s political system into turmoil for more than two years.
In their complaint on Wednesday, prosecutors contended that Mr. da Silva had overseen a far-reaching system of illicit payments, kickbacks and campaign donations in which the construction company O.A.S. paid as much as $26 million to obtain contracts from Brazil’s oil giant, Petrobras.
The prosecutors did not claim that Mr. da Silva personally pocketed that money. Instead, they asserted that it went to oil executives, Workers’ Party leaders and lawmakers in the governing coalition to help maintain the party’s grip on power. The prosecutors are now demanding that Mr. da Silva return that amount of money to public coffers.
The charges and broader allegations are a major blow to Mr. da Silva, adding to a mounting list of legal problems that have complicated his ambitions of returning to the presidency.
Just a few years ago, Mr. da Silva, a former labor leader who never finished elementary school, ranked among Brazil’s most powerful politicians. His party held the president’s office for 13 years, overseeing a period of brisk economic growth during which millions were lifted out of poverty.
But bribery scandals and a severe economic crisis have tarnished his legacy, ending with the ouster of his handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, who was removed by the Senate in August in a contentious impeachment trial.
Prosecutors in São Paulo had already filed corruption charges against Mr. da Silva at the state level in March, arguing that he had sought to conceal his ownership of the apartment.
Mr. da Silva will also stand trial on charges of obstructing the investigation into the bribery scheme surrounding the national oil company, Petrobras, a federal judge ruled last month.
Nearly 40 politicians and business leaders have been jailed since prosecutors discovered the Petrobras scheme in 2014.
In all, investigators say that contractors paid nearly $3 billion in bribes to executives at the oil giant, who pocketed some of the gains while also channeling funds to politicians in the governing coalition led by the Workers’ Party.
Mr. da Silva and his lawyers have repeatedly said that he did nothing illegal in relation to the apartment in Guarujá, a seaside city near São Paulo.
But investigators said O.A.S., a large Brazilian construction company, had illegally paid for a series of improvements at the property. Prosecutors also filed corruption charges against the former chief executive of O.A.S.
Mr. da Silva’s lawyers, Cristiano Zanin Martins and Roberto Teixeira, said in a statement that the charges and the broader allegations “attack the democratic rule of law and the intelligence of Brazilian citizens,” and that their client was innocent.
The charges were filed after months of simmering tension related to Mr. da Silva’s legal battles.
Federal Police agents raided his home in March and briefly held him for questioning. After that, Ms. Rousseff, the president at the time, offered him a cabinet post that would have given him broad legal protections from being jailed. But Brazil’s Supreme Court blocked the nomination.
Rui Falcão, the president of the Workers’ Party, described the latest charges as an effort to hamper Mr. da Silva’s involvement in politics. Mr. da Silva has signaled that he plans to run for president again in 2018, and polls have placed him among the leading contenders.
“These charges were expected as part of an effort to criminalize Lula,” Mr. Falcão said.
The amount of money that Mr. da Silva is accused of receiving in the form of an apartment upgrade pales in comparison with what others have been accused of pocketing in recent years.
Eduardo Cunha, the conservative former speaker of the lower house of Congress, who orchestrated the effort to oust Ms. Rousseff, is charged with taking as much as $40 million in bribes and laundering them through an evangelical megachurch. And Sérgio Machado, a former chief executive of a Petrobras unit who was a member of the centrist party of Brazil’s new president, Michel Temer, has agreed to return more than $20 million in bribes.
Brazil’s entire political system is struggling to react to the steady drip of charges and revelations from various bribery scandals. The new administration of Mr. Temer, the former vice president who engaged in a bitter power struggle with Ms. Rousseff, is facing dismal approval ratings and doubts about its legitimacy after various cabinet ministers were forced out of their posts over reports that they were seeking to stymie corruption inquiries.
Mr. Temer’s former attorney general, Fábio Medina Osório, claimed over the weekend that he had been fired after seeking damages from construction companies involved in the Petrobras scheme.
Mr. Medina Osório told the magazine Veja that Mr. Temer’s government was seeking to “smother” the inquiry, which is popularly known as Car Wash, after a gas station in Brasília that a black-market money dealer used to launder bribes and kickbacks.
Heightening the sense of distrust, some figures involved in the scheme have been secretly recording one another, with the idea of using the information to reach plea deals with prosecutors.
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