| BRASILIA, March 17
BRASILIA, March 17 Brazilian politicians are
scrambling to negotiate an amnesty for illicit funding as part
of efforts to shield themselves from a widening graft probe that
has engulfed President Michel Temer's government and the
Lawmakers have for months sought a legislative
slight-of-hand to evade the rapidly expanding "Car Wash"
investigation that has exposed systematic corruption on
contracts at state enterprises, particularly oil firm Petrobras.
Panic in Brasilia hit fever pitch this week after Prosecutor
General Rodrigo Janot, the country's top prosecutor, called for
investigations into bribery and political kickbacks that
reportedly target six cabinet ministers and over 100 lawmakers.
The scandal has reached into Temer's inner circle and,
though he is not a target of investigation, threatens his
survival and the fate of proposed reforms to curb an untenable
budget deficit and pull Brazil out of its worst recession.
The corridors of Congress emptied on Wednesday - the day
after Janot's request to the Supreme Court was made public - as
the political class was convulsed by speculation over who would
be on the secret list and how to avoid joining more than 80
businessmen and politicians already in jail.
Prosecutors say they are well aware of the efforts to
confound their investigation, but remain confident that rising
public indignation and the weight of evidence of various crimes
will ensure those responsible are brought to justice.
"There are easily more than 100 politicians we have asked
the Supreme Court to be investigated," a senior member of the
prosecution team said. "When secrecy is lifted and the details
made public, we'll have some turbulent days."
Lawmakers told Reuters the thrust of behind-the-scenes
negotiations is aimed at an amnesty for the widespread practice
of obtaining undeclared campaign funds under the table from
That would entail a new law to make the practice, known as
"caixa dois," a crime but which would prevent retroactive
punishment, effectively pardoning anyone guilty of the practice
"They are trying to put this to the vote, but I don't think
they will have the courage to pull this off," said Green Party
Deputy Antonio Carlos Thame, an anti-corruption campaigner.
Anyone supporting the bill, which has no official sponsor,
would face the wrath of an enraged Brazilian electorate in next
year's elections. Two attempts to discretely push the measure
through the lower house failed last year.
"It's an insult to public opinion. The intention is clearly
to obstruct the Car Wash investigation," said leftist Senator
Randolfe Rodrigues, who has sponsored a bill to abolish court
prerogatives for politicians.
Janot's request for investigations - the biggest to date in
the three-year-old probe - stemmed from 950 depositions given in
December by 77 executives from the Odebrecht construction
The company in December signed the world's largest leniency
deal with Brazilian, U.S. and Swiss prosecutors and admitted
bribing politicians across Latin America and in Africa.
Carlos Lima, a federal prosecutor who has helped lead the
probe, told Reuters he thinks upward of 350 new investigations
could stem from the Odebrecht testimony.
Adding to the worries in Brasilia is mounting public
pressure on Congress to abolish the "special forum" rules that
almost guarantee impunity for politicians.
That law means politicians, members of the executive branch
and thousands of other officials can only be investigated if the
Supreme Court gives permission.
Any trial must then play out in the over-burdened top court,
where cases drag on for years and less than 1 percent of
politicians get convicted.
Supreme Court justices are proposing the prerogative be
curbed or eliminated, but lawmakers under investigation,
including the government's leader in the Senate, Romero Jucá,
are insisting only Congress can make that change.
Even if politicians can avoid conviction, many are conscious
that the reputational damage inflicted by the scandal may thwart
their hopes of reelection next year. That has put electoral
reform back on the agenda.
The favored proposal is to move to a system of closed lists
in which voters would cast ballots for parties and not
individual candidates. That would allow politicians implicated
in the investigation to escape the direct wrath of voters.
Despite that, Senator Rodrigues expects voters to expel
tainted lawmakers in 2018, resulting in a renewal of Congress
from where a more honest generation of leaders will arise.
Lima, the prosecutor based in southern Brazil, was also
phlegmatic about lawmakers efforts to create an amnesty for
'caixa dois': even if they pull it off, many of those facing
investigation would have to answer for other crimes, he said.
"They would likely face a trial regardless," Lima said,
adding that the Odebrecht testimony - once it is made public -
will make it clear that bribery was endemic in public life.
"The political class needs to understand how this amnesty of
corruption would be viewed by the population," Lima said. "It
would be a crime against the Brazilian people."
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Additional reporting by Brad
Brooks; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Paul Simao)