By Lucy Jordan, Senior Contributing Reporter
BRASÍLIA, BRAZIL – The mensalão case, dubbed the “trial of the century,” moves into its most politically significant phase this week with the Supreme Court examining the allegations of vote buying by the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party, PT). Now Marcos Valério has claimed in an incendiary interview with Veja magazine that the scheme reached into the highest levels of the government.
“Lula was the boss,” Valério, the businessman at the heart of the trial, told Veja. Valério says that Lula “commanded everything,” and that the two men met repeatedly, often in unscheduled consultations, at the Palácio do Planalto.
According to Veja, Valério also claimed the PT’s slushfund was as large as R$350 million – more than twice the amount previously thought.
It seemed initially that Valério, convicted last week of money laundering and facing other charges including bribery and embezzlement, had perhaps decided he has little to lose.
However, to add further fuel to the political fire, following Veja’s publication, Valério’s lawyer on Monday denied that his client gave an interview to the magazine at all. Veja’s reporter insists that he has a recording proving otherwise.
The mensalão is something of a watershed moment for Brazil, which has historically suffered from widespread political corruption and a culture of impunity amongst its most powerful. Under President Dilma Rousseff’s stewardship however, Brazil has recently made significant moves towards greater transparency in government.
Certainly the scope of the trial is wide: with 37 defendants, it promises to be the largest case the Supreme Court has ever seen. It seems likely that many of those accused will be convicted.
On Tuesday the Supreme Court Justice Joaquim Barbosa said there was ample evidence against the 23 defendants who make up the scheme’s “nucleo politico” or political core, showing that some R$55 million was transferred to coalition party members.
Lula has repeatedly denied knowing anything about the scheme, the central accusation of which is that, during his administration, certain members of the PT arranged for some coalition members to receive a “mensalão,” or big monthly payment, to ensure their support on key votes.
“We have to be careful [with Valério’s accusations]” said David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia. “The media generally, and especially Veja, are very anti-PT and anti-Lula and have been for a long time.”
The Attorney General, Roberto Gurgel, has conceded that the “statements are important” but urged caution regarding Valério’s ‘alleged statements,’ calling him “a player.”
“The whole question is does [Valério] have any kind of evidence,” said João Castro Neves of the Eurasia Group, a consultancy, on Monday. “Because if not it’s just political noise, it’s chatter, and it doesn’t derail the whole process.”
As observers wait to see if Valério will stand by his statements and has evidence to back them up, the focus of the trial will shift to whether the PT paid bribes to its allied base in exchange for support.
This part of the trial will examine 23 defendants, eleven of whom are politicians who mostly still hold public office or play a significant role in the party seven years after the scandal broke.
“Regardless of the results this is positive for Brazil,” said Mr. Neves. “It sends a message that institutions are stronger in Brazil than they were twenty years ago, and if you are going to be corrupt you need to be more and more creative.”