It was an unprecedented decision in Brazil. Late in the afternoon of February 11, the Brazilian federal appellate court, the Superior Justice Court (STJ) ordered a sitting governor, José Roberto Arruda, of the Federal District (Brasília) and five others to be held in prison temporarily.
The court acted on a lawsuit filed jointly by a federal prosecutor, Raquel Dodge and the chief federal prosecutor, Roberto Gurgel. Dodge and Gurgel took their case to the senior judge on the STJ, Fernando Gonçalves, who could have decreed the arrest by himself. However, due to the gravity of the situation, Gonçalves had his decision seconded by other judges on the court in a 12 to 2 vote.
In its sentence the court made it clear that the governor and the others were to be incarcerated because they posed a direct and real threat to the investigation into a corruption scheme allegedly run by the governor involving all branches of the local government (the executive (known as the GDF), legislative and judicial), along with private contractors who did business with the GDF.
The court found undeniable proof that Arruda and the others were obstructing justice, attempting to intimidate and/or influence witnesses and destroying and/or adulterating documentary evidence.
The court called Arruda and the others “A criminal organization that continues using its economic and political power to foil the investigations and guarantee their own impunity from prosecution…and which, at this very moment, is busy erasing all traces of its criminal activities…”
The next day, Friday, February 12, the emergency duty judge on the Supreme Court received the inevitable writ of habeas corpus from Arruda’s lawyers, but, citing the STJ decision and praising its juridical reasoning as accomplished and perfect, justice Marco Aurélio Mello denied the habeas corpus and Arruda spent Carnaval in a special cell in the Federal Police headquarters in Brasilia while the others were locked up in the local penitentiary, Papuda.
More than 10 days later they all remain in jail. Now, that is really unprecedented.
The alleged Arruda corruption/bribery scheme itself is probably not all that unprecedented but it is certainly impressive. An interesting idea the governor had was to create a Secretary of Public Order in January 2009, with the task of overseeing administrative discipline and dealing with cases of irregularities throughout the GDF.
Known as the “sheriff,” the head of the secretariat, Roberto Giffoni, a career government attorney, was a kind of watchdog of the watchdogs. He is cited in testimony by the whistleblower, Durval Barbosa, as being the recipient of various questionable payments, as well as ordering questionable payments to others.
The eternal question that Plato wrestled with, immortalized by Juvenal, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?” (who guards the guards or watches the watchmen) the governor answered by putting a colleague in charge of all the guarding and watching.
The governor also effectively undermined 200 years of modern democracy theory by dynamiting one of its cornerstones: the idea of separation of powers or checks and balances. He not only corrupted his own branch of government, but octopus-like invaded the rest of the State.
There are 24 deputies in the DF Legislative Assembly. At least 8 were cited nominally as being part of the bribery scheme, including the legislature’s watchdog/inspector general. Three were filmed receiving money. In one reported example of the bribery scheme, 18 deputies who voted in favor of new zoning laws permitting more real estate speculation in the nation’s capital were paid over 400,000 reais (US$ 220,000) each.
And finally, at least one member of the local TCU (the equivalent of the Government Accounting Office), another supposedly independent watchdog entity, has been implicated in the scheme. And two members of the DF judicial system (TJDF), along with at least one local prosecutor (MPDF), are also believed to be involved.
Ever since the first videos showing the accused with the money appeared at the end of November, the accused, from the governor down, just circled the wagons and stonewalled. However, when a new videotape appeared showing an emissary from the governor trying to bribe a witness, known as Shadow (“Sombra”), things changed.
That was clearly “obstruction of justice and a threat to the public order” (in the words of prosecutors and judges). The emissary was arrested immediately and the prosecutors went after the governor and others involved in the bribery attempt.
With the governor behind bars, things changed once again.
The next in line to succeed to the governorship, the vice governor, tried to run the government during the last twelve days but resigned Tuesday. Deeply implicated in the corruption scheme, he could not round up political support and was in the process of being disowned by his own political party. His resignation changed things again.
The next in line is the new president of the Legislative Assembly, Wilson Lima (PR), who has little political experience or support.
As things change, they get more confusing. The governor is still in jail and he is still the governor. Meanwhile the chief federal prosecutor insists Arruda should be permanently removed and that the legislature is so corrupt that no member can be allowed to take over the governorship. He is demanding another alternative: federal intervention.