Q&A: Brazil's 'big monthly' corruption trial
- 16 November 2013
- From the section Latin America & Caribbean
Dozens of defendants went on trial at the Brazilian Supreme Court on 2 August 2012 in what was billed as one of the biggest political corruption scandals in the country's recent history.
The judges considered allegations that, between 2003 and 2005, politicians and officials diverted public funds to buy political support for the government of the then President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. The scheme became known as "mensalao" or the "big monthly" allowance.
Some 25 defendants were convicted, among them former senior members of the governing Workers Party (PT). The first arrests happened nearly a year later, between 15 and 16 November 2013.
What exactly was the "mensalao" scandal?
Under the scheme, public funds were used to buy political support for the then-Lula government and to pay off debts from election campaigns. The central accusation was that politicians from coalition parties were given large payments each month to support the minority government led by the Workers' Party. The scandal nearly caused the Lula administration to collapse.
How did the affair come to light?
The scandal broke in 2005 when a congressman publicly accused the PT of paying the equivalent of $10,000 (£6,400) a month to political allies dating back to 2003. The allegation led to the downfall of several members of Congress and senior members of the government. Jose Dirceu, who was Lula's chief of staff, was accused of being the mastermind behind the scheme. He resigned and a few months later was also impeached by Congress.
What happened at the trial?
On 2 August, 38 people went on trial in one of the biggest cases to be heard in Brazil since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985. (One case was subsequently referred back to a lower court.) It took a year to prepare the case and another until the judges agreed to hear it. Statements were taken from more than 600 witnesses.
Twenty-five out of 37 defendants were convicted, among them Mr Dirceu. He was sentenced to 10 years and 10 months in jail.
What were the defendants specifically accused of ?
The defendants, including politicians and executives, faced accusations ranging from embezzlement and corruption to conspiracy, money-laundering and misusing public funds. Prosecutors say Mr Dirceu and other leaders of the PT, together with bankers and publicists, formed a "criminal organisation" that used public and private funds to buy political favours.
What did the defendants say ?
Some admitted receiving money, but denied the payments were made to guarantee political support. Instead, they said the scheme was only a way of paying electoral campaign debts. Although illegal, as the debts were not made public, the practice is common in Brazilian politics. Other defendants deny ever giving money to secure support from other parties.
What about Lula?
Lula himself was not implicated, and at the time of the original scandal told the Brazilian people he felt "betrayed". He later downplayed the accusations, saying the PT had behaved in the same way as other parties.
What was the wider significance of the trial?
This case attracted major coverage as Brazilians watched to see if those found guilty of corruption would be held accountable and the country's long history of impunity ended.
It was also seen as hugely sensitive for the PT, which has held the presidency since 2002. The party portrayed itself for many years as above the kind of corruption allegations that are routine in Brazilian politics.
Was President Dilma Rousseff's government affected?
President Rousseff was not implicated at all, and as most of the politicians in the case are not currently in government, her administration was not directly affected.
What does the scandal say about Brazil's political system?
It highlights some of the inherent weaknesses in Brazil's multi-party democracy, where parties draw extensively on private funding to contest very competitive elections. And as it is hard to secure an overall majority, the resulting coalition can sometimes involve as many as 10 or 11 parties. When Lula won the presidency, he had to craft a government with allies from both the right and left, paving the way for the kind of corruption allegations at the heart of Mensalao.
Has anyone been arrested?
In November 2013, the Supreme Court issued the first arrest warrants for 12 of the 25 convicted in 2012. Among the arrested were Dirceu, former Workers' Party president Jose Genoino and other high profile figures. An ex-director of the Brazilian state-run bank Banco do Brasil, Henrique Pizzolato, fled the country to avoid jail.