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Brazilian Senate scandals: a guide

Get caught in a scandal in Brazil and you might lose your job. You'll almost never go to jail.

Brazil's Senate President Jose Sarney gestures during a Senate session at the National Congress in Brasilia, Aug. 3, 2009. (Roberto Jayme/Reuters)

SAO PAULO — It's the topic du jour in Brazil: Will a politician demonized by the press and accused of evading taxes, misusing government funds and a host of other ethics violations be allowed to keep his job as one of the most powerful lawmakers in the country?

Scandal surrounds 79-year-old senator Jose Sarney, the Senate president (and the country’s former president, and the unofficial head of one of its most powerful political parties) and the debate centers on whether he'll forced out of the position — or the Senate entirely.

Since February, a string of accusations of financial, political and legal shenanigans by senators and the Senate staff has captured the country’s attention and reminded Brazilians why they hold politicians in such low esteem. In recent weeks, the stakes have been raised: focus has shifted almost exclusively onto alleged misdeeds by Sarney, who was vehemently defended by his political ally, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. And it began to look like the outcome could deeply affect the 2010 elections, when Lula hopes to have Sarney’s help to elect his chosen successor, chief of staff Dilma Rousseff, to the presidency.

Here is a basic scandal guide for foreigners, with some help from the man best positioned to explain it to them: David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia who is a dual American-Brazilian citizen and the author of the weekly Brazil Focus newsletter.

How did it start?
There was no earthshattering, Watergate-level scandal that kicked things off. Instead, around February, sources in the Senate starting talking to journalists and feeding them a steady stream of juicy stories. One of the first good ones was the discovery that the Senate had paid millions of dollars of overtime to employees over the Christmas recess. But things really got going with the revelation that 181 Senate employees were pulling in six-figure salaries with the title of “director.” (By comparison, there are only 81 senators all those directors are there to serve.) And perhaps most damaging was the revelation that hundreds of “secret acts” not published in the Senate’s official record had been used, among other things, to hire relatives and otherwise unqualified workers for Senate positions.

Who is Sarney and how did he end up taking the rap?

He was first elected to federal office in 1958 and was president from 1985 to 1990, during the transition from military dictatorship to democratic rule; he has been a senator since 1990 and the president of the Senate since February. “Sarney is one of the last of the old-style politicians from the 1950s,” Fleischer said.

It was not until the end of May that he was directly accused of anything, in that case for receiving a housing stipend — about $2,000 a month — he did not qualify for since he already had a home in Brasilia. His relatives appeared in the secret acts, and his daughter, Roseana, who traded a Senate seat for the governorship of Maranhao state in April, allegedly had her “butler” on the Senate payroll (even after she became governor). Jose Sarney was accused of evading taxes with an offshore bank account, leaving a $2 million home off an official declaration of his assets, and misusing funds given to a non-profit organization he heads by the state oil company. Late last month, the newspaper Estado de Sao Paulo obtained recordings made during Federal Police wiretaps that appeared to show the senator, his son and his granddaughter discussing employment in the Senate for her boyfriend. The Sarneys were able to get a federal judge to order Estado de Sao Paulo not to cover that case anymore.