Brazil's Lava Jato graft probe, 4 years on

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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Brazil's blockbuster corruption probe known as Lava Jato (car wash) is completing four years and has spread to other countries.

The operation, which started in March 2014, initially centered on alleged fraud in contracts between major construction groups and state-run oil company Petrobras. The construction companies benefited from overpriced contracts in return for bribes paid to public officials and employees of Petrobras.

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So far in Brazil, Lava Jato has resulted in sentences for 107 people, including prominent businessmen and politicians, and 11.5bn reais (US$3.5bn) in leniency agreements with the companies involved.

"Criminal investigations and prosecutions have gone well in all instances because the legal instruments are defined and because corruption has become a priority for the population," said general prosecutor Raquel Dodge. "There is much to do and we are redoubling our efforts."

Lava Jato spread to other areas where construction groups also played a key role, such as in flagship hydroelectric project Belo Monte and the Angra III nuclear plant.

The probe mainly targeted projects in Rio de Janeiro state and led to the arrest of former governor Sergio Cabral over alleged corruption in infrastructure projects during his tenure.

LOOKING AHEAD

Lava Jato has since expanded its footprint to other states and projects.

An ongoing corruption investigation into the awarding of certain highway concessions in southern Brazilian state Paraná put major concessionaires, such as Triunfo Participações e Investimentos, Ecorodovias Infraestrutura e Logística and CCR, in the spotlight.

The companies were awarded over several years a wave of concessions promoted by federal and state governments in Paraná.

"This investigation is a clear indication that privatizations do not necessarily lead to the end of corruption," Lava Jato prosecutor Carlos Fernando dos Santos Lima told reporters when the current operation was announced in late February. "The operation is an attempt to investigate an open wound in the state of Paraná, which is the high toll rates," he added.

In addition, Lava Jato prosecutors are expected to expand investigations into past infrastructure projects in São Paulo state during the administrations of former governor Jose Serra and current governor Geraldo Alckmin, both from the centrist PSDB party.

"Due to plea bargain deals we arranged new information and made new connections. We are in a phase where the investigation begins to pulverize and the tendency is to strengthen this line in São Paulo," said Maria Emília da Costa Dick, a prosecutor in the Lava Jato taskforce, during a press conference to mark four years of the probe.

The investigations in São Paulo could hurt Alckmin's attempt to become Brazil's president, as he plans to run in the October election. The investigation is likely to focus on contracts between the state government and embattled construction and engineering conglomerate Odebrecht.

INTERNATIONAL SCANDAL

Lava Jato has also become one of the largest corruption probes in the world.

Local prosecutors reached cooperation agreements with counterparts in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico, Panama and Peru, among others.

International investigations are more concentrated on Odebrecht, which in December 2016 admitted to paying millions of dollars in bribes to secure contracts across Latin America and exposed leading politicians in the region.

ELECTION FACTOR

The October election will also choose new state governors and congressmen and could mean the beginning of the end for Lava Jato.

"This year, we have an electoral process and prosecutors trend to accelerate investigations during an electoral year, as the debate likely gets very intense, mainly about corruption," Adriano Pires, head and founder of Rio de Janeiro infrastructure consultancy firm CBIE, told BNamericas.

"When we have a new congress elected, along with a new president and new governors, the trend is that investigations lose momentum and the end of Lava Jato is likely to be closer."

In photo: Odebrecht executive Marcelo Odebrecht was released from jail in December and will serve the remaining five years of his 19-year sentence for his role in the scandal under house arrest.