Democrats Want Answers on U.S. Role in Brazil Investigation

Twenty-three House Democrats want to know more about the U.S. Justice Department’s secretive role in the now-disgraced Operation Car Wash corruption investigations in Brazil. In a letter on Monday, the group sent Attorney General Merrick Garland a list of questions and expressed concern about the U.S. role in prosecutions “perceived by many in Brazil as a threat to democracy and rule of law.”

“It is imperative that Congress receive full and accurate answers regarding our government’s actions — particularly when those actions may have long-lasting effects beyond our shores,” said Rep. Susan Wild, D-Penn., in a statement to The Intercept.

“It is imperative that Congress receive full and accurate answers regarding our government’s actions — particularly when those actions may have long-lasting effects beyond our shores.”

Car Wash targeted a sprawling network of political corruption centered around the state-controlled oil giant Petrobras. U.S. and Brazilian prosecutors’ aggressive tactics greatly weakened Brazil’s once-powerful civil construction and petroleum sectors and led to the imprisonment of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, clearing the way for far-right authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro to win the presidency in 2018.

“Whether or not our DOJ was responsible for the wrongful imprisonment of President Silva and paved the way for Bolsonaro, a COVID-denying, climate change-denying, far-right nationalist, to take the presidency must be investigated to the fullest extent and those responsible held accountable,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., one of the congressional letter’s signatories, told The Intercept.

Wild, the Pennsylvania Democrat, said, “I have long been concerned by Lava Jato” — Car Wash in Portuguese — “and its consequences for Brazilian democracy — particularly what appears to have been a deeply flawed and politicized effort to imprison former President Lula and to keep him off the ballot in the 2018 presidential election. If the Department of Justice played any role in the erosion of Brazilian democracy, we must take action and ensure accountability so that it never happens again.”

After Bolsonaro’s victory, he quickly appointed Sergio Moro, the judge who convicted Lula of corruption, to be his justice minister, outraging opponents who viewed the move as proof of Moro’s — and Operation Car Wash’s — partisan leanings. In 2019, The Intercept began publishing an investigative series based on damning private chat records between Moro and Car Wash prosecutors, which showed collusion, political bias, and other improprieties.

In March, citing The Intercept’s reporting, the Brazilian Supreme Court vacated the convictions against Lula, who had earlier been released, and restored his right to run for office. The court also ruled later in the month that Moro was biased, dealing a mortal blow to the hugely influential prosecution that evolved into a powerful political movement.

Moro broke with Bolsonaro in 2020 and resigned from office. He now works as a lawyer and the managing partner at a consulting firm that represents companies he previously convicted as the Car Wash judge. Lula is again the frontrunner in next year’s presidential election. Reporting from The Intercept and Brazilian news outlet Agência Pública also revealed that the FBI requested case files on the investigation into Lula before the case went public and the Brazilians quietly sent the information through nonofficial channels.

The letter to Garland — led by Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., and signed by prominent progressives like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. — cites a similar letter that Johnson and colleagues sent to then-Attorney General William Barr on August 20, 2019, months after The Intercept’s initial reporting on Moro and the Car Wash prosecutors. “Regrettably, we did not receive a substantive response from Attorney General Barr to the questions we raised at the time,” the new letter reads. (The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

The case will be a test of Garland’s stated commitment to the principles of democracy and rule of law. The original Car Wash-Department of Justice collaboration occurred largely during the Obama administration, under Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, and was promoted by the Justice Department as a model partnership. A top department official told an audience in 2017, “It is hard to imagine a better cooperative relationship in recent history than that of the United States Department of Justice and the Brazilian prosecutors.”

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., speaks to constituents during a town hall meeting on Aug. 13, 2019, in Lithonia, Ga.

Photo: John Amis/AP

In their letter, the members of Congress cite reporting from The Intercept in collaboration with Brazilian news outlet Agência Pública last March, which revealed that exchanges between the Department of Justice and Brazilian prosecutors may not have followed proper protocols.

In a 2015 incident, at least 17 U.S. law enforcement officials traveled to the Car Wash task force headquarters in Curitiba, Brazil, for a series of meetings about the investigation, while undertaking efforts to hide the visit from the Brazilian government. Under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty that regulates legal collaboration between the two countries, the host government must formally approve law enforcement activity by foreign agents in their country.

In a chat on the messaging app Telegram, Car Wash task force coordinator Deltan Dallagnol ordered a press aide to keep the meetings under wraps, saying the “Americans don’t want us to divulge things.” Details of the meetings, however, eventually leaked to the press. The Brazilian Justice Ministry immediately demanded details about the visit, but Dallagnol negotiated with colleagues to limit the amount of information that would be handed over, even attempting to hide the names of the U.S. officials.

After this was revealed by The Intercept and Agência Pública, 77 members of Brazil’s Congress sent a letter to their U.S. counterparts, requesting that the Americans “adopt the appropriate legislative measures” and “hold those responsible agents and officials accountable.”

Brazilian Rep. Glauber Braga, who organized the Brazilian congressional letter, considers the U.S. role in Operation Car Wash to be an “illegal and criminal interference.” “We cannot accept foreign interference disguised as ‘cooperation’ that aims to facilitate the implementation of an economic program to dismantle the Brazilian economy and harm democratic freedoms within the country,” Braga told The Intercept.

The chat records published by The Intercept and Agência Pública also show how Dallagnol cavalierly worked to bend the rules to benefit U.S. prosecutors, without approval from his superiors, who worried that he was violating the law to do so. The Brazilian prosecutor was eager to keep the Americans happy in order to negotiate a larger share of the billions in dollars of settlement payments being negotiated by the U.S. Department of Justice, Petrobras, and associated contractors. In a 2016 chat, Brazilian prosecutors said that the Department of Justice had “total knowledge” of the Brazilian investigation into the Odebrecht construction firm, which eventually pleaded guilty to bribery charges in the U.S. and agreed to pay a record $3.5 billion penalty and later filed for bankruptcy.

Dallagnol and other prosecutors attempted to maintain control of Brazil’s share of those funds and use them to create an independent “anti-corruption” foundation, but their plan was shot down by the Brazilian Supreme Court in 2019.

Monday’s letter stated that House Democrats “are particularly concerned that the income produced from the enforcement of important U.S. legislation dedicated to fighting corruption, could have ended up going to ends not entirely consistent with democracy, rule of law, equal justice under the law, and due process — not to mention Brazilian legal and constitutional requirements.”

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