By Lucy Jordan, Senior Contributing Reporter
BRASÍLIA, BRAZIL – Federal Police said Friday they had arrested six people in Brasília and São Paulo for alleged involvement in a corruption ring. In total, eighteen people are under investigation for influence peddling, bribery, conspiracy and forgery in connection with the scheme, which allegedly saw government approvals given to businesses in return for bribes.
The arrests, under Operação Porto Seguro, come weeks after sentences were passed down in the mensalão scandal, the sprawling vote-buying scheme that has seen former officials at the very highest reaches of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government convicted of corruption.
Among those arrested Friday was the Chief of Staff of the Presidency in São Paulo Rosemary Novoa de Noronha, for allegedly selling falsified documents and arranging meetings between politicians and businessmen in return for cash, jobs and business contracts for her relatives, and even plastic surgery.
Before taking her current position in 2005 Ms. Noronha had served as Lula’s personal secretary, and accompanied him on numerous trips abroad, which will likely spark speculation over whether Lula’s legacy can escape close association with yet another scandal. Despite his proximity to those convicted in the mensalão – José Dirceu, considered the mastermind behind the scheme, was also Lula’s top aide and right-hand man – Lula’s popularity has endured.
“[Lula’s] image is very solid as the president who improved the lives of Brazilians,” said Alberto Almeida of Instituto Análise, a political consultancy. “Furthermore, he appointed a successor who is doing a good job. So he is very highly rated and respected by most of the population.”
The Federal Police began investigations into the influence peddling scheme in March 2011 after receiving a tip-off. A whistle-blower initially accepted a bribe of R$300,000 to prepare a positive technical report for a company in the port sector, police said, but changed their mind and contacted officials.
President Dilma Rousseff acted quickly after the scheme emerged, ordering everyone under investigation be dismissed and asking any government agency linked to the scheme to launch an internal inquiry.
“She knows she has to be tough to avoid being hit by the scandal herself,” said James Bosworth, a consultant working on Latin American issues. “Fortunately for the president, most of the corrupt officials identified so far have been closer to Lula than to her preferred administration officials.”
Rousseff was not implicated in the mensalão scandal, and has earned robust anti-corruption credentials since succeeding Lula as president. She oversaw the implementation of a Freedom of Information law, launched an open-data portal, and seven ministers have been ousted over graft allegations under her watch. Earlier this month Brasília played host to the 15th International Anti-Corruption Conference.
Also arrested Friday were two brothers: Paul Rodrigues Vieira, of the National Water Agency, and Rubens Carlos Vieira, of the National Civil Aviation Agency, local media reported. The Vieira brothers allegedly made contacts between businessmen seeking to curry favor and public officials they deemed corruptible. A third brother, Marcelo Rodrigues Vieira, is accused of seeking out corrupt businessmen, and handing off documents and payments.
The police are also investigating Deputy Attorney General Jose Weber Holanda for corruption, although it is unclear whether he is being investigated as part of Operação Porto Seguro. Globo has reported that he is accused of asking for cruise ship tickets in return for granting a tract of Navy-owned land on an island off the coast of São Paulo to real estate interests.