Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – This week, after an interminable nine months of internecine squabbling, behind-closed-doors arm-pulling, vociferous jawboning and dire threatening to open Pandora’s box, the Ethics Committee of the Brazilian Congress voted, 11 to 9, in favor of ousting the President of the Chamber, Deputy Eduardo Cunha, from his seat in the Chamber.
The accusation against Cunha was that he had violated “parliamentary decorum” by lying to a Parliamentary Inquiry Committee (“CPI”) about having hidden money in offshore accounts. His defense was that he was not the owner of those bank accounts; in this, he was, technically and legally, correct.
The funds (reputed to be well over US$20 million) were held and nominally owned by trusts — a centuries-old Anglo-Saxon institution designed to allow the rich to avoid taxes. Cunha was only the beneficiary of the trust, not its owner.
The “ethical” basis for ousting Cunha was that he had lied to a CPI investigating the Petrolão scandal. In other words, Cunha was not accused of violating parliamentary decorum by receiving bribes, nor by squirreling money away offshore, nor by failing to declare income to Brazil’s tax authorities.
Those, after all, are merely crimes. Decorum requires you to tell the truth to Parliament, and is a much more serious offence than any of those crimes, because lying is “unethical”.
The singular thing about the vote is that almost half of the committee members did not think Cunha had violated parliamentary decorum. Once again, speaking technically and legally, they were right.
Brazilian law specifically permits defendants in criminal cases to lie. Witnesses in court must swear to tell the truth, but defendants are not so sworn, because Brazilian law presumes everyone will lie on their own behalf.
In court, defendants are free to lie to their hearts content — but not, apparently, when facing a Congressional committee.
The Curmudgeon practices Brazilian law, but not criminal law, which he loathes.