Brazil’s ex-president denies trying to obstruct graft probe
SAO PAULO – A former Brazilian president denied in court Tuesday that he was part of a plot to impede the sprawling corruption probe at the state oil company and likened the barrage of media attention on the charges against him to a “massacre.”
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has been accused, along with several others, of plotting to buy off or otherwise prevent a former Petrobras executive from revealing what he knew about the bribery scheme. Silva testified he didn’t even know former oil company director Nestor Cervero and never had contact with him.
“I have absolutely no reason to have any problem with the testimony of Cervero – no reason at all. I don’t know (him),” Silva said, according to a video provided by the court.
State oil giant Petrobras is at the center of a wide-ranging investigation into kickbacks and inflated contracts at state companies. The probe has ensnared dozens of high-level politicians and executives. Cervero was convicted in connection with the probe and is cooperating with prosecutors.
At the beginning of nearly an hour of testimony, Silva was asked if he was familiar with the accusations against him and whether they were true. He responded: “The information is false.”
Silva, who was president in 2003-2010, is also facing charges in a handful of other cases linked to the probe. He has maintained his innocence in all of them, saying the allegations are politically motivated. Despite these legal challenges, Silva is leading some polls for next year’s presidential election.
The former president occasionally appeared emotional, frustrated or even angry during his testimony. He made several self-aggrandizing claims, including that his presidency turned Brazil into a major player on the world stage, that he is considered the most important president in Brazil’s history and that Brazilians see him as the most important world leader of the beginning of the 21st century.
He contrasted these successes with the indignity of seeing headlines every day claiming that some business executive or politician was going to level a new accusation against him.
“For about three years now, I have been the victim of, I would say, almost a massacre,” he said.
Silva, a union leader turned politician, testified that he was exceptionally careful during his eight years in office to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, saying he skipped dinners, birthday parties and weddings, so he wouldn’t find himself in a situation where someone might ask a favor.
The Petrobras probe has grown into the biggest graft investigation in Brazil’s history and has shocked even the most cynical of Brazilians for the scale of corruption it has revealed. Prosecutors have relied heavily on signing plea bargains with certain defendants to make cases against others.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Rodrigo Janot asked the Supreme Court to open 83 corruption inquiries into sitting politicians who have the right to have their cases heard by the highest court.
He also sent more than 200 other cases to federal prosecutors around the country, so they could decide whether to ask for inquiries. The defendants in those cases could include former or lower-level politicians who do not have the privilege of being tried at the Supreme Court.
The evidence supporting Janot’s requests comes from 77 plea bargains signed with executives and former executives at construction giant Odebrecht, which is a central player in the Petrobras scandal.
Brazil has been waiting to see who is named in the new investigations, which many expect to reach the highest levels of government. The names of the accused, and any evidence against them, remains secret unless the Supreme Court justice charged with the case lifts the seal.
Also Tuesday, federal police arrested two Rio de Janeiro state officials on charges of money laundering and accepting bribes in exchange for contracts for a subway line for the 2016 Olympic Games.
The arrests of Luiz Carlos Velloso, the state’s undersecretary for tourism and former deputy secretary of transportation, and Heitor Lopes de Souza, a director for Rio’s subway operator, are part of the larger Petrobras probe.