It was already close do midnight, last night, when the Brazilian government announced that the new minister of Tourism would be deputy Gastão Vieira from the PMDB party of Maranhão. He substitutes Pedro Novais, from the same party and same state, who resigned amid charges of improper use of public funds.
Vieira is 65. He was elected to the Chamber of Deputies for the first time in 1995. He has served twice as a state secretary (Education, and Planning and Budget).
After the confirmation that Pedro Novais was no longer minister of Tourism, the PMDB decided that president Dilma Rousseff could pick any one of the party’s 79 federal deputies as a substitute. The announcement of the 79 candidates to succeed Novais was confirmed by Henrique Eduardo Alves (PMDB-Rio Grande do Norte), the leader of the party in the Chamber of Deputies.
“Any name she chooses will have our approval. The name she chooses will deserve the support of the PMDB. We are nominating 79 people. The president has a clear obligation to pick one of our deputies. We expect that a name will be announced by tomorrow,” declared Alves.
The PMDB leader explained that he spoke with a few deputies and the decision was made to present a list with the names of all the PMDB deputies on it. The list was initially presented to vice president Michel Temer (a former president of the PMDB and PMDB deputy from São Paulo). Temer then delivered the list to president Dilma.
Novais resigned late Wednesday amid a long-brewing corruption scandal, marking the fifth cabinet-level official to step down from president Dilma Rousseff’s nine-month-old government since June.
Following a series of allegations that have engulfed the ministry for weeks, Pedro Novais succumbed after daily Folha de S. Paulo reported this week that he used public funds, in a previous government post, for personal uses.
The allegations come weeks after Brazil’s federal police arrested 36 tourism ministry officials, including Mr. Novais’ chief deputy, Federico Silva da Costa in a sting probing graft of ministry funds.
According to Folha, Novais wife Maria Helena de Melo has a personal chauffeur at her service 24 hours that belongs to the payroll of the Congress Lower House.
Earlier in the week the same São Paulo daily published that Novais, from 2003 to 2010, paid domestic staff at his home with congressional funds, while he was a member of the Lower House for PMDB the ruling coalition’s senior partner.
The resignation comes on the heels of a spate of other recent departures that included Ms. Rousseff’s chief of staff and her defense, transportation, and agriculture ministers. In each case except for that of the defense minister, the ousters were the result of corruption scandals.
Though none of the officials have been formally charged with any crimes, the scandals have reminded Brazilians that despite recent economic gains, corruption remains a significant obstacle to overall progress.
Some allies of Ms. Rousseff have applauded the departures as a signal that her government will tolerate less corruption than leaders have in the past. Critics, however, believe she has merely reacted to scandals that wouldn’t have come to light had it not been for the local media.
In several instances, they point out, Ms. Rousseff has publicly backed the beleaguered officials even as the scandals ballooned, deciding to ouster the officials only after the accusations have rendered them too weak to perform their duties effectively.
The ministers that have been forced to resign based on corruption allegations are former cabinet chief Antonio Palocci; Transport minister Alfredo Nascimento; Wagner Rossi, Agriculture and Nelson Jobim from Defense.
Jobim lost his job for describing his fellow cabinet members as incompetent. “I’m surrounded by a bunch of idiots, and the new cabinet chief is a weakling that doesn’t know her way around Brasilia”.
The PPS, an opposition party, has announced that it will request investigations by the Office of the Chief Prosecutor and the Ethics Counsel at the Chamber of Deputies of charges of corruption and misappropriation of public funds by the former minister of Tourism, Pedro Novais.
“The idea is to go beyond punishing only civil servants who allocate ministry funds to companies that do not exist. The former minister is also responsible. It is a fact that in April and May he was informed of irregularities and did nothing,” said Bueno.
“Punishing only civil servants” refers to the arrest of more than 30 employees at the Ministry of Tourism by Federal Police in a sting called Operation Voucher involving misappropriation of public funds for a phantom project in the state of Amapá.
According to the leader of the party in the Chamber of Deputies, Rubens Bueno (PPS-PR), the former minister can be accused of “prevaricação”, that is, a breach of trust or abuse in the exercise of public office.
The leader of another opposition party, Alvaro Dias (PSDB-Paraná), also came out in favor of a further inquiry into the activities of Novais. “The resignation is more reason to move ahead with an investigation. Everything must be examined to find out who was responsible and, ideally, achieve a restitution of misused public funds,” he declared.
Charges of inappropriate behavior and improper administration against Novais have appeared regularly in the press. He is suspected of embezzling 1 million reais through an earmark for the construction of bridge in a small town, Barra do Corda, in his home state of Maranhão. The money went to a non-existent company.
This week the newspaper, Folha de S. Paulo, reported that his wife uses an employee of the Chamber of Deputies as a private chauffeur and that the salary of a maid Novais and his wife have is paid by the legislature also.
Meanwhile, the leader of the main government party in the Senate, Humberto Costa (PT-Pernambuco), rebuffed criticism of president Dilma Rousseff for waiting too long to fire Novais. According to Costa, the president just gave the former minister time to defend himself and when that was no longer possible, due to the successive charges against him that made his permanence unsustainable, he left.
“The president has acted in a consistent manner in these cases. At first, the benefit of the doubt, a vote of confidence and time for defense. When the defense is found to be inadequate, political conditions for the minister to remain in the government no longer exist,” said Costa.
In a Brazilian version of the deep frisk, shortly after Novais was appointed minister, at the beginning of the year, it was discovered that he paid for a party at a motel (in Brazil motels are hot sheets hotels) with public money. The money was restituted by Novais and the matter allowed to cool off,
The government’s chief prosecutor, Roberto Gurgel, says he will open an investigation into whether or not Novais was involved in the case of embezzlement at the ministry uncovered by the Federal Police known as Operation Voucher, wherein 36 ministry employees were arrested and charged.
The crime consisted of misappropriation of public funds destined to train tour guides in the state of Amapá. Instead the money went to non-existent companies. Although the entire upper echelon at the ministry went to jail, Novais was spared because he was not minister when the actual crime occurred.
According to Gurgel, government attorneys will look into cases of improbity recently revealed and verify any criminal involvement of the former minister in the Operation Voucher case.
“There are cases of improper activities by the former minister and there is the Amapá scandal (Operation Voucher). There seems to be a connection between the two. We will examine the facts,” said Gurgel. “The seriousness of the charges against Novais will depend on whether or not he was involved in both.”
The newspaper Folha de S. Paulo also reported that a car Novais used (chauffeured by an employee of the Chamber of Deputies) belonged to a company that received 159,000 reais between April 2009 and December 2010 from the office of deputy Pedro Novais when he was in the Chamber of Deputies.
Gurgel declared that the charges against Novais were almost overwhelming in volume. If all the facts were true, he said, it would be another case of a politician mixing up his private life with public duties.
“That is something that has plagued Brazil ever since before the Republic,” declared the chief prosecutor.
There are rumors in Brasília that the next minister to fall will be the Minister of Cities, Mario Negromonte. But the list of cabinet members suspect of corruption includes several names. As in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah the question is: is there any righteous people left in town?