Police Tap on Brazil’s Senate Chief Gives Hope Scandal Won’t “End Up in Pizza”

Brazilian Senator José SarneyWhen the British magazine The Economist published the article entitled “House of Horrors”, about corruption inside Brazil’s Senate, politicians of Brazil were in denial, claiming the article was biased. The piece had mentioned among many other things the number of politicians occupying the House of Senate and its astronomic staff: 81 senators and an incredible army of 10,000 people to cater to the senators’ needs.

A few days prior, the daily newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo had revealed that José Sarney, the President of the Senate and a former president of Brazil, was also responsible for the approval of 663 secrets acts favoring job nominations for friends, acquaintances and family members to lucrative positions within the senate. The extensive list included political allies, grandchildren, daughter-in-law, and even Sarney’s own son, Sarney Filho.

Besides nepotism practices, Sarney is also being accused of tax evasion, for not having declared his US$ 2.5 million mansion to tax officers, illegal money wire to offshore ghost bank accounts, and also public funds misappropriation linking Brazil oil giant Petrobras to the scandal of monetary donations to Fundação Sarney, a museum inaugurated during the time Sarney served as governor of Maranhão, a post now being occupied by his daughter Roseana Sarney.

Apparently Petrobras would have destined close to R$ 1,3 million reais (US$ 600,000) to the Sarney Foundation as cultural incentive. Strong suspicions indicate the funds were misused.

The long list of schemes ended up involving Fernando Sarney, José Sarney’s son, in an operation called Boi Barrica, a name inspired by a legendary folklore creature in the State of Maranhão. Fernando Sarney is being investigated by the Federal Police for money laundry, use of slush funds for electoral purposes, misrepresentation and abuse of power, having exerted the Sarney’s influence over lucrative state-run deals.

The State of Maranhão, where the Sarney family is in command for years, is considered one the poorest states in Brazil, with a population of 58% surviving with less than US$ 40 a month, below poverty line.

The mounting pressure and the strengthening of the movement “Fora Sarney” (Sarney Out), which aims to oust the President of the Senate, has not afflicted Sarney at all. He has remained stoic alleging that nothing could frighten him, much less what he considers to be mere insults.

Despite the nonchalance attitude, Agência Brasil revealed on July 13, that the older Sarney did decide to take upon himself the initiative of canceling the 663 acts signed by him, promising a refund of all expenses to public coffers, in an attempt to regain the public confidence.

The crisis is still far from being resolved though, as new information from the Federal Police just published by the respected daily O Estado de S. Paulo revealed more practices linking Sarney’s family to corruption acts, as well as Sarney’s direct ties to Agaciel Maia, former General Director for the Senate, also appointed by Sarney. The news weighs heavy on the corruption scale, and it denounces more unethical practices and misuse of political influence.

Following judicial orders, Federal police agents were able to tap into the Senate President’s phone conversation, and overhear a negotiation where Sarney appears to be securing a Senate job opening for his granddaughter’s boyfriend .

The first recording released by Federal agents shows Fernando Sarney informing Maria Beatriz Sarney, his daughter, he had already guaranteed with Agaciel Maia a job for her boyfriend, Henrique Dias Bernardes.

The second recording reveals Sarney’s granddaughter in negotiation with the Senate president over details for the boyfriend’s appointment. On a third recording, Fernando Sarney discusses the position with his daughter. On a fourth recording, Maria Beatriz comments on the position with her father Fernando Sarney .

The last recording concluded with Fernando Sarney’s attempt to persuade José Sarney to expedite the process. José Sarney promises to speak with Agaciel Maia in order to make the appointment official. Eight days later, José Sarney’s granddaughter’s boyfriend was appointed for the job.

During the recording Fernando Sarney appeared to be deeply familiar with the process: “Tomorrow morning you will have to call me, so that I can talk to Agaciel”, said Fernando. “Ask Bernardo to look for Agaciel.”

According to the Federal Police, the Sarneys had been working on the appointment since March 30, 2008, when the granddaughter had asked her father whether “Henrique (her boyfriend) would be able to secure the job”. Bernardo Brandão Cavalcanti Gomes, Beatriz’s half-brother from her mother’s side had been occupying that position since 2003. Following the inquiry, Fernando simply responded: “We can work on that.”

Despite Fernando Sarney’s reassurance, however, he would still need to speak with Agaciel Maia, former General Director for the Senate, who advised Fernando to contact José Sarney directly, so he could work with in tandem with Garibaldo Alves (PMDB – Brazilian Democratic Movement Party), President of Senate at the time. Beatriz had also been advised to take her boyfriend’s resume to Agaciel.

The next day Beatriz phones her father Fernando Sarney, informing that she had already spoken with her grandfather. Immediately after, Fernando calls Aluísio Mendes Filho, Sarney’s personal assistant, and explains the situation, asking for an additional “little help.”

“When my dad was the president of the Senate, he helped Beatriz’s half brother to get a job, now that he is leaving, I called Agaciel to see the possibility of getting Beatriz’s boyfriend a job as well. Since he is leaving, you could very well help me out on this one, and this position could be ours,” he said . “What we need is just a phone call from Dad to Agaciel”.

Less than one hour later, José Sarney phones Fernando: “You had never said a word about this Beatriz stuff,” protests Sarney. According to Sarney, the nomination should have been done before Beatriz half-brother had resigned. “Have you spoken to Agaciel,” asked the President of Senate, José Sarney. Following positive reply, he promised to speak with Agaciel once more.

The conversation between Sarney and his son took place on April 2, 2008. On April 10th, Beatriz’s boyfriend was hired as parliamentary assistant III . The Operation Boi Barrica, started three years ago, investigated corruption cases involving the Sarneys in Maranhão. The folkloric group Boi Barriquinha, for which the operation was named, has the Sarneys as sponsors.

According to O Estado de S. Paulo, this is not an isolated case. There are hundreds of secret acts where family members and friends were benefited.

These scandals are once again shaking up Brazilians’ belief in their public leaders and their ability to build an ethical and prosperous country.

It is not the first time, Sarney is the target of an investigation. Back in 1988, a special congressional investigating committee (CPI) investigated corruption within the Sarney government and a report at the time recommended the start of impeachment proceedings.

Early in 1989, the then acting President of the Chamber, Inocêncio de Oliveira (PFL – Pernambuco) unilaterally decided to archive the case preventing any collective political decision by the full Senate.

As the investigation continues, Brazilians are hoping that the long-lasting soap-opera of scandal and corruption involving Brazilian government may not once again “end up in pizza”, a local expression that means “going nowhere.”

Edison Bernardo DeSouza is a journalist, having graduated in Social Communication Studies at Pontifical Catholic University in São Paulo, Brazil . He lived in the US and Canada for close to 12 years and participated in volunteering activities in social works agencies. DeSouza currently lives in São Paulo where he teaches English as a Second Language for both private English Language Institute and Private High-School. He has already participated as an actor in three English plays in Brazil and is pursuing further advancements in his career. He is particularly interested in economics, history, politics and human rights articles.


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