Scenes From The Borking of Celso Pitta

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Widely ridiculed in Brazil, this 2004 effort to delineate the scope of tax evasion, money-laundering, and misappropriation of public funds did apparently figure in the indictment of Paulo Maluf by the Manhattan District Attorney. And Morgy’s boys are not chopped liver, I tend to think. So I think maybe I will actually try to read it.

After the Clinton victory, James Carville began to focus on foreign consulting. Since that time, Carville’s political clients have included: Greek Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis; Brazilian President Fernando Enrique Cardoso; Honduran Prime Minister Carlos Flores; President Jamil Mahuad of Ecuador; the Liberal Party of Canada; British Prime Minister Tony Blair; Sao Paolo [sic] Mayor Celso Pitta; Argentine Economic Minister Domingo Cavallo; Francisco Labastida of Mexico; Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago Basdeo Panday; and Hipolito Meija of the Dominican Republic. …

In a bid to separate folklore from fact on the subject of corruption here in Brazil — if only to keep myself sane while reading certain Brazilian newsweeklies that can be more destructive of brain cells than shoving your face in a brown bag full of model airplane glue and inhaling deeply, I find — I have been trying to do a fair amount of background reading lately, particularly the final report of the CPI of the Banestado, a congressional probe into … well, a number of different forms of pillaging the public treasury like the barbarians sacking Rome while Nero worked out on “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”

Conventional wisdom is that the CPI of Banestado was a gabbling shambles of some sort — either a “political witch hunt” or an exercise in “pizza,” depending on who you ask. And yet the District of Attorney of Manhattan seems to have based his indictment of Paulo Salim Maluf at least partially on the CPI of Banestado, which was forwarded to his office.

An indictment that Larry Rohter found “bizarre.” Without explaining why he thought so.

Whereas I tend to find editorializing in a news story even weirder. Especially when it appears in the New York Times.

See also

I have also been reading a book from the Fundação Perseu Abramo — the PT’s think tank — on a 1999 state assembly probe into widespread bribery in São Paulo under Governor Maluf and the mayor of São Paulo at the time, the Harvard-educated Celso Pitta.

The book is “The Mafia of Bribes: Investigating Corruption in São Paulo,” by José Eduardo Cardozo, a city alderman who chaired a probe into payoffs to city officials for routine permits and licenses that eventually led to an unsuccessful bid to bork various lawmakers, including Mayor Pitta of the PTN — whose current advertising prominently features the Willy Stark broom of reform.

Pitta was later arrested for contempt of Congress in the Banestado probe in the national Congress. In 2006, the state prosecutor won a judgment requiring Pitta to reimburse the city government to the tune of some $5.6 million.

It’s gripping reading, but giving you a brief summary of the entire shrieking mess is beyond my powers or time-budget at this point.

The target, basically, was the widespread collection of bribes by city licensing officials, regulators and inspectors of various kinds — your butcher, your construction site, your taxi driver, the folks selling fish at the feira, things like that — who owed their jobs to political patronage.

These political patronage public servants then had (but should we really be using the past tense?) to kick some of their bribe income into political slush funds for their patrons.

The probe of which was a mighty, mighty mishegaas of maracutaias in its own right, I think it’s fair to say. The prime candidates for getting borked on corruption charges working to bork their borkers on corruption charges, that sort of thing.

Look: I happen to know someone very well here in São Paulo who volunteered for a gubernatorial campaign once upon a time in the Brazilian Southeast, for example. They report having worked out of a (luxurious) private home — one of many black-bag locations functioning as part of the underground campaign network.

They were paid every week in cash by a guy who would come around in a nice Benz with a bulging briefcase.

Paid well. This friend of ours thanked God for the work, the job market being what it was … and is.

Still, one side note as I continue to study: I did think the case of alderman José Izar of the PFL makes an interesting counterpoint to the current flap over the president of the federal Senate, Calheiros.

Calheiros recently avoided impeachment on one of several ethics counts he faces.

(He may face a criminal trial as well, but the burden of proof on “conduct unbecoming” is, in theory, much weaker. Unless new evidence arises. In which case, wake me when you have some real news.)

On the Izar absolution:

A reação da opinião pública foi violenta. O trecho do discurso em que José Izar alertou seus 35 amigos foi amplamente divulgado por todos os órgãos de imprensa. Foi interpretado como uma “chantagem que deu certo”. E, até o final de 1999, ainda era freqüentemente lembrado por aqueles que acreditavam que a máfia das propinas ainda permanecia viva no Legislativo paulistano, comandada pelos 35 amigos do vereador não cassado.

The reaction of public opinion was violent. The passage from his speech in which José Izar warned his 35 friends was widely featured in the news media, interpreted as “blackmail that worked.”

Reporting on the Calheiros case recycled that meme, I noticed.

And in late 1990, it was still recalled with some frequency by those who believed the “mafia of bribes” lived on in the state legislature, commanded precisely by the “35 friends” of the alderman who escaped impeachment.

On the “35 friends” speech:

Contudo, o ponto alto de sua defesa ainda estava para acontecer. Falando em tom piedoso, mas com uma visível dose de ironia, afirmou que, caso fosse cassado, iria ajudar cada um dos vereadores com seus votos, já que nunca iria “traí-los”. E concluiu, mostrando finalmente os trunfos que escondia na manga: “Dizem que amigos a gente conta nos dedos. Mas minha mão deve ser de gigante, porque tenho 35, talvez 34 ou 33 amigos comigo”. Enquanto discursava, fez um gesto contundente e claro: abriu uma das mãos e colocou os dedos da outra, reunidos na forma de um cone, sobre a palma da primeira.

However, the high point of Izar’s defense was still to come. Speaking in a pious tone, but with a visible dose of irony, he said that in the event he was removed from office, he was going to help every single alderman [to get out] their vote, because none of them was going to “betray” them. And he concluded, finally playing the ace up his sleeve: “They say that you can count my friends on the fingers of one hand. But my hand must be gigantic, because I have 35, maybe 34 or 33, friends on my side.” As he spoke, he made a very broad and unmistakeable gesture: He opened one of his hands, palm flat, and placed the fingers of the other hand, gathered into the shape of a cone, on his palm.

A mensagem era certeira. Celso Pitta sempre desfrutou de uma base de apoio formada por aproximadamente 35 parlamentares. José Izar vivia proclamando que considerava todos como amigos. Dizia que tinha todos na palma da sua mão. E que, por isso, eles seguiriam com ele para onde quer que fosse. José Izar foi absolvido

The message was right on target. Celso Pitta always enjoyed a base of support made up of about 35 aldermen, and Izar was constantly proclaiming that he considered all of them his friends. He was saying he held them all in the palm of his hand. And that for that reason, they would follow him to the ends of the earth. Izar was absolved.

Muitas vezes, ouvi vereadores governistas lamentando o fato de Izar não ter perdido seu mandato. Admitiam que um grave erro tinha sido cometido. Não por razões éticas ou porque tivessem, finalmente, percebido que o vereador era culpado das acusações que lhe eram feitas – fatos, para muitos deles, sem a menor relevância. A queixa se dava porque imaginavam que a desastrada decisão de não retirar o mandato de um vereador incriminado pela opinião pública poderia ter arruinado definitivamente suas futuras pretensões políticas. “Essa história dos 35 amigos vai ser lembrada durante toda a eleição”, lamentou, certa vez, um vereador governista, com ar desesperançado.

Many times I heard aldermen from the government bloc [the PSDB-PFL were the government and the PT in the opposition at the time –Ed.] lamenting the fact that Izar had not lost his seat. They admitted a serious mistake had been made. Not for ethical reason or because he might have been guilty as charged, after all — considerations that for many of them had not the slightest importance. Their gripe was that the disastrous vote to maintain an alderman who had been incriminated by public opinion in office might ruin their future political ambitions once and for all. “This story of the 35 friends is going to be remembered throughout the election campaign,” one government alderman lamented, with a disconsolate air.

“Damn, we should have voted for the lynching the media was pushing for,” in other words.

Except that in that case, the case for the prosecution did seem to made a respectable effort to meet its burden of proof. In which case “lynching” might not be the right word. Some of the local papers did some very good investigative reporting on the case, one googles.

The so-called “blackmail” speech of Calheiros on the other hand, seemed more like a warning to his colleagues that borking on less than an in dubio pro reu standard of evidence, with less than due process of law, was going to come back and bite them all on the ass one of these days.

The fellow said to have articulated the rationale for absention in the Calheiros case, for example, Sen. Dornelles, has faced corruption charges himself in the past. Justly or not, who knows? He played a key role in quashing the abortive CPI of Corruption at the time, for example.

Yet continues to serve in the Senate. See also

And supporters of “the sex Senator” — I call him that because aside from the as-yet unsubtantiated, though plausible, charges about his personal finances, the scandal basically had to do with his out-of-wedlock daughter with a woman now slated to appear in the Grupo Abril’s Playboy Brasil — immediately began wondering why, for example, Sen. Azeredo of Minas Gerais is not in the dock for impeachment himself.

On which see also

Someone depicted in a very positive light in the alderman’s book, by the way, is Romeu Tuma, Jr., sone of the São Paulo senator and former DOPS officer (although his Wikipedia autohagiography fails to mention that part of his curriculum vitae).

Junior was recently named to a top post in the Justice ministry, despite his political affiliations. Possibly because, as the depiction of his professional conduct in this case suggests, he is basically a responsible adult. Sort of a tropical Patrick Fitzgerald (a true son of Brooklyn, oba!)

Interesting question to look into.

Anyway, the risk management takeaway for the discerning gringo is this, I think: Thank God Alberto Gonzales is history.

Because I think that once you observe the ghastly effects of politicizing the administration of justice in someone else’s struggling democracy, you get a better idea of the nightmare that was in store for us if we failed to purge these gabbling Moonies with extreme prejudice. One Moonie, one vote. Or else Father help us all.


Left to right: Dornelles, Eduardo Azeredo, FHC, foreign minister Fernando Lampréia, in 1997.

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