RIO DE JANEIRO: One Brazilian is accused of taking bribes, another with hiding a secret bank account, a third with trying to help a man escape prison.
So who are they—hardened conmen? Mobsters?
No, they’re three of the leading senators set to judge President Dilma Rousseff this week and decide whether to remove her from office.
The phrase about taking a thief to catch a thief might have been invented for what Sylvio Costa, founder of Congresso em Foco website, calls “the strange reality” of Brazil’s political landscape.
Rousseff is accused of using illegal state loans to boost public spending and hide the shaky condition of the economy during her 2014 reelection.
She argues that these accounting tricks have long been common practice in Brazilian governments and were at worst a misdemeanor, far from an impeachable crime or act of corruption.
But if the president’s sins fall into a gray area, the same cannot be said for those accusing—and judging—her.
Analysis by watchdog Transparencia Brasil reveals the Senate is a rogue’s gallery where 61 percent of the 81 members have been convicted or probed in crimes at some point.
Rap sheets range from the serious, like stealing millions of dollars in a giant embezzlement scheme uncovered at state oil company Petrobras, to the ridiculous—like Senator Telmario Mota de Oliveira’s suspected involvement in cock fighting.
Congresso em Foco, which covers Congress and keep tabs on politicians’ brushes with the law, says 24 of the 81 senators face current criminal cases.
“The Senate is a small portrait of Brazilian politics,” Costa said. “We have a political system which is completely rotten.”
Senate President Renan Calheiros, the man who will organize the impeachment trial, is in that 61 percent.
He’s accused of taking millions in bribes, along with dozens of other politicians and leading business figures, in the corruption network that fleeced billions of dollars from Petrobras.
But—again, like many in the elite—Calheiros is a remarkable escape artist.
In 2013 he survived the embarrassment of being caught using an Air Force jet to fly to the northern city of Recife for a hair transplant. He also rode out accusations that he allowed a lobbyist to pay child support to a lover he’d gotten pregnant.
Another big name in the gallery is Senator Aecio Neves, the opposition candidate whom Rousseff only narrowly beat in 2014.
Neves fancies himself as a strong bet at the next scheduled elections in 2018, even if he’s being investigated for bribe taking and has come under fire for his family’s secret bank account in Liechtenstein.
Then there’s silver-haired Delcidio do Amaral, who led Rousseff’s Workers’ Party in the upper house until last November when he became the first sitting senator to be arrested.
Amaral, accused of being a key player in the Petrobras ring, allegedly attempted to organize the flight of a jailed oil executive to Spain so that he wouldn’t testify.
Since then, Amaral has started testifying himself, becoming the government’s star witness in a plea bargain that has seen him point fingers at dozens of former colleagues, including Rousseff, whom prosecutors are now probing for obstruction of justice.
Just when Brazil’s political crisis seems unable to get any wilder, it does.
Consider the line of presidential succession in a country where the elected president looks almost certain to be forced to step aside.
Rousseff’s immediate replacement is her vice president-turned-enemy Michel Temer. He’ll take over as soon as the Senate suspends Rousseff and if she is forced out altogether he’d stay in office until the next scheduled elections in 2018.
Temer was fingered by Amaral in the Petrobras affair. Also, a Sao Paulo court this week effectively banned him from seeking elected office for eight years because he broke campaign finance rules.
After Temer comes Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of Congress’ lower house — or he was until Thursday when the Supreme Court suspended him for allegedly obstructing a probe into his alleged bribe taking.
Cunha’s replacement as head of the lower house is Waldir Maranhao Cardoso. And yes, Maranhao is also accused of involvement in the Petrobras thievery.
Finally, the next closest to the throne is Calheiros—the scandal-plagued Senate president himself.
Will things improve? Costa says the Supreme Court’s downing of the seemingly untouchable Cunha is a landmark.
But even as growing numbers of corrupt leaders go to jail, those still free can take comfort in the story of yet another senator, Fernando Collor de Mello.
Son of a senator, Collor became Brazil’s President in 1990 only to be forced out in 1992 by impeachment for corruption and banned from seeking public office for eight years.
In 2006, Collor entered the Senate. Despite also being charged with Petrobras corruption last year—and suffering the indignity of police confiscating a Ferrari, Porsche and Lamborghini from his house—he’s still there.
And this week, he’ll be among the 81 men and women voting on Rousseff’s fate.