Brazil's Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a corruption case against former Cabinet members in a 2005 bribes-for-votes scandal that seriously damaged the reputation of the president's party. The most prominent defendant, former chief of staff José Dirceu, helped engineer President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's historic 2002 election.
Once the second-most powerful man in Latin America's largest nation, Dirceu now stands accused of orchestrating the alleged scheme to buy support from congressmen so they would support Lula's congressional agenda.
Dirceu was forced to resign after news of the scandal broke, along with other prominent members of Lula's Workers' Party who now face charges before the high court: former party president Jose Genoíno, former party treasurer Delúbio Soares; former Transportation Minister Anderson Adauto; and congressmen from allied parties.
Dirceu and the politicians targeted by federal prosecutors have denied the charges.
Also facing charges is Congressman Roberto Jefferson, a former government ally who has testified before Congress that the Workers Party financed campaigns illegally and paid legislators monthly bribes for their support.
Dirceu has been described as the mastermind of the payments, which Jefferson said involved monthly bribes (for that reason the scandal got the name of mensalão – big monthly in Portuguese) of about US$ 13,000 to congressmen so they would vote in line with the Workers' Party. His allied party alone received some US$ 2 million.
The Workers' Party, once considered a bastion of ethics in Brazilian politics, acknowledged irregularities in its campaign financing, and Jefferson was later expelled from his post for not proving the corruption allegations.
Lula was never implicated in the scandal, but the controversy helped prevent him from pushing through important legislative efforts such as labor and pension reform, seen as crucial to reducing the extremely high cost of doing business in Brazil.
The political opposition seized on the scandal in the 2006 presidential election, when Silva was forced into a second-round runoff. He went on to win a resounding victory, largely on the strength of Brazil's booming economy and an internationally recognized anti-poverty program that hands out monthly payments to poor Brazilians.