BRAZIL: CORRUPTION VS REPUTATION
In May 2013, convicted black market money dealer Alberto Youssef bought through third parties a luxury car for his friend and alleged accomplice, Paulo Roberto Costa, a former executive at state-oil company Petrobras .
But while negotiating the purchase of the R$250,000 ($110,000) Range Rover Evoque in São Paulo, they put their names together on a seemingly harmless document: a proof of address. It was the only occasion in the mountains of police investigation documents seen by the Financial Times they voluntarily appeared together.
Federal police swooped. They raided the home of Mr Costa, confiscating the Evoque and more than half a million dollars of cash. Prosecutors allege that the wider extent of corruption that affects Petrobras, including bribes and underhand political donations, amounts to more than R$1bn in inflated contracts. In the process, the police helped throw open Brazil's October election, turning it from what looked like a one-horse race for President Dilma Rousseff to the closest contest in recent history. As the former chairwoman of Petrobras, the claims threaten Ms Rousseff's reputation as a capable technocrat. Prosecutors allege the company was used for extensive political donations.
A task force of federal public prosecutors in the state of Paraná, which is leading the probe, said: "The suspects . . . converted R$250,000 extracted from corruption and abuse of public office at Petrobras into a legitimate asset through the purchase of the Land Rover."
Mr Youssef's lawyers said the vehicle purchase was not illegal and Mr Costa's lawyers added that the vehicle was payment for bona fide consultancy services provided to Mr Youssef. Both men are in custody facing charges of money laundering, corruption and abuse of public office.
Brazilians are appalled at accusations that criminals had infiltrated Petrobras, their country's biggest company, a national icon and a global leader in ultra deepwater oil exploration. The company reported net profit last year of R$23.6bn with production of 2.54m barrels of oil equivalent a day. Petrobras is seen as so important that both the lower house and the Senate have launched inquiries.
"This scandal has contributed greatly to the fall in the popularity of the president," says Senator Álvaro Dias, of the opposition PSDB, who is participating in one of the congressional inquiries into the case. The president's approval rating has fallen from above 60 per cent early last year to less than 40 per cent. But Ms Rousseff's ruling Workers' party (PT) dismisses claims that Petrobras's problems have damaged her chances of winning a second term, saying the president has been cleared of any wrongdoing in the scandals.
Beyond party politics, however, the controversy has highlighted what analysts say is a dangerous flaw in Brazil's national institutions: the ease with which politicians are able to use state companies as a source of illicit campaign funds. "The truth is most parties try to use state-owned enterprises for their benefit," said Sérgio Lazzarini, a professor at business school, Insper, in São Paulo.
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