Brazilian investigators on Wednesday charged former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva with money laundering and corruption, calling him the “maximum commander” of the mammoth graft scandal roiling Latin America’s largest nation.
While the charges against Silva were expected — police recommended them last month — the characterisation of his role in the kickback scheme at state oil company Petrobras was stunning.
The so-called Car Wash investigation the last two years has led to the jailing of dozens of businessmen and top politicians. While Silva, president between 2003 and 2010, has long been implicated, before Wednesday prosecutors had never said that he was anything more than a beneficiary.
Silva was “the maximum commander of the corruption scheme identified as Car Wash” Deltan Dallagnol, head of the task force investigating, said during a televised news conference from the southern city of Curitiba.
“We are not judging here who (Silva) is or was as a person, but what he did or didn’t do to the people,” Dallagnol said.
Dallagnol put up diagrams that purported to show Silva’s connection to various players in the kickback scheme going back more than a decade. He said prosecutors could show that Silva had met at key times with people involved in the scheme, such as Marcelo Odebrecht, the former president of the big Odebrecht construction company who has been jailed.
Dallagnol alleged that Silva, who left the presidency with very high approval ratings, used a network of illegal campaign financing and kickbacks for political support in Congress.
Silva’s lawyer, Cristiano Zanin Martins, blasted Dallagnol, saying he had shown himself unfit for the job.
“His political behaviour is incompatible with the role of a federal prosecutor,” said Martins.
Despite a litany of accusations against Silva, there were only two actual charges: money laundering and corruption.
Silva, his wife and five others were accused of illegally benefiting from renovations at a beachfront apartment in the coastal city of Guaruja in Sao Paulo state. The improvements, valued at about US$750,000, were made by construction company OAS, one of those involved in the kickback scheme emanating from Petrobras. Prosecutors also believe Silva benefited from OAS paying the rent of storage unit to house symbolic gifts that Silva received while president.
Silva acknowledges having visited the penthouse but says he never owned it.
Sergio Moro, the judge overseeing the probe, must now decide whether Silva will stand trial.
In a separate case related to Petrobras, Silva will go on trial on charges of obstruction of justice.
While his Workers’ Party has lost much support amid corruption scandals in recent years, Silva continues to enjoy popularity nationwide and has signaled his intention to run for president in 2018.
The yawning gap between the verbal accusations Wednesday and what Silva was accused of raised many questions about the future of the investigation.
Silva, who denies wrongdoing, has long been trying to get the cases against him removed from the jurisdiction of Moro, who has become famous for locking up prominent figures the last two years.
Legal experts said that making such drastic statements could help prosecutors retrain the case in their jurisdiction and keep the investigation in the public eye.
“The harsh wording shows that the evidence might not be that great,” said Cezar Britto, former head of Brazilian Bar Association. “It looks as if the prosecutors are looking for the support of society instead of looking for more evidence.”