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INTERVIEW - Brazilian graft fighter pushes for judicial reform

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 27 Nov 2012 13:34 GMT
Author: Paula Daibert
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BRASILIA, (TrustLaw) - Brazil’s biggest obstacle in tackling corruption is its lengthy and outdated judicial process, and crucial reforms are moving too slowly through the National Congress, said the country's top graft fighter, Comptroller General Jorge Hage Sobrinho.

Brazil has taken strides in addressing graft, such as its recent reform of money laundering laws, Hage said in an interview with TrustLaw. But the number of appeals that can be filed during a lawsuit is larger than anywhere else in the world, which makes completing a prosecution very difficult and is one of  the reasons why impunity in corruption cases is such a big problem in Brazil, he said.

“It takes some 15 to 20 years to conclude a lawsuit. And when it reaches an end, either the defendant has already died or the crime has reached the statute of limitation. That’s why we see so little condemnation of crimes against the public sector,” Hage said.

“White-collar crimes are the slowest to be punished, because those defendants can pay the best attorneys who know how to exploit the appeals system,” he said.

The comptroller general is in charge of leading the prevention of  and fight against corruption in the public sector, together with the federal police and the public prosecutor’s office. Hage, an attorney who represented Bahia state in Congress for four years and has worked as an international consultant for the Organization of American States, was named to head the comptroller’s office in 2006.   

Hage gave TrustLaw the interview shortly before a new corruption scandal rocked the Brazilian government. On Saturday, less than a month after the Supreme Court completed its deliberations on a vote-buying scandal, President Dilma Rousseff ordered the dismissal of government officials allegedly involved in a new bribery ring, including the deputy attorney general.  

Hage blames the National Congress for the slow progress in strengthening the fight against corruption. It has debated for years but not yet approved criminal and civil legislative reforms designed to speed up judicial processes in a legal system largely inherited from Portuguese colonialists.  For example, proposed amendment No. 15 to the constitution, currently pending in the Senate but without a deadline for a vote, would represent a great improvement in the fight against corruption, he said.

If it passes, Brazilian judges will be able to enforce a sentence even if appeals are still pending in the top two courts -- the Superior Court of Justice and the Supreme Court -- where the longest delays take place.  It would mean that if a person is found guilty, he or she could be punished when a court of appeals reaches a decision. Ideally, there would be no further appeal possibilities beyond that stage, he said.

He noted the exceptional speed with which the judiciary handled the vote-buying scandal known as the Mensalão trial, where the Supreme Court found 25 political figures and businesspeople associated with former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva guilty in a scheme to pay lawmakers a monthly retainer in exchange for supporting his legislative agenda.  Lula was not charged in the case.

But Hage doubted that the judiciary will be as efficient from now on.

“Brazilian law determines that authorities at a certain level can only be judged by the Supreme Court. That’s why there was record speed,” Hage said. The highest court was also innovative in this case, breaking with historical traditions, he said.

“The composition of the court is new, there’s another mentality. So they were flexible for the first time in accepting evidence that was collected before the lawsuit or in reaching guilty verdicts without direct evidence of the participation of a person in the crime. They found people guilty on the basis that they knew of the crime because of their position in the government,” he said.

Although further judicial reform depends upon Congress, the comptroller general said Rousseff has made progress in the fight against corruption. He pointed to the Access to Public Information law as a great accomplishment. In effect since May, the law enables ordinary citizens to request access to any information or document produced at every level of government. According to Hage, more than 45,000 requests have been filed online, and his office has granted 95 percent of the requests.

The administration is looking for other ways to speed up the delivery of justice, he said. 

“We have also been exploring using administrative processes as a means of punishment, so we don’t have to depend on the judiciary to fight impunity,” he said.

“We have dismissed more than 4,000 government employees and registered up to 5,000 companies that can no longer get new public contracts because of (procurement) irregularities,” he said.

Cleaning up public procurement is a priority. Brazil plans to spend over $500 billion on infrastructure projects as part of its preparations to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.  Ernst and Young in its latest Global Fraud Survey found that 84 percent of people surveyed thought bribery and corruption were widespread in Brazil.   

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