At times Penal Action No 470, known popularly as the Mensalão, literally “the big monthly payment”, seemed more like a TV soap opera than a trial in a solemn court of law. In the dock stood once powerful political leaders, while impassioned lawyers and robed judges engaged in verbal battles. More than once a Supreme Court judge stormed out of the court, after a violent disagreement with a fellow judge.
For the mainstream media, who gave unprecedented coverage with 300 hours of live radio and TV transmission and special supplements and programmes, the Mensalão was not only the worst case of corruption in the history of the country, but a threat to democracy.
For them, the result – long prison sentences for some of the PT (Workers’ Party)’s big names – represented the downfall of the wicked and powerful and the triumph of justice. But for others, the result was a travesty of justice by a Supreme Court, which allowed itself to be influenced by the press that was baying for blood, PT blood.
The PT accused the Supreme Court of trying to criminalise the party, of convicting on the basis of deductions and inferences rather than hard evidence, and of deliberately holding the case in the run-up to the October municipal elections, in an attempt to influence results.
The 37 people who stood trial included publicists, bankers, and the leaders of some of the minor parties who make up the government’s political base in congress. Twenty five were found guilty of crimes including money laundering, passive and active corruption, and associating with others to commit crimes. They were given sentences ranging from a few months to 40 years.
José Genoino Neto, former federal deputy and former president of the PT, was sentenced to seven years. Delúbio Soares, ex-PT treasurer, was given almost nine years. All also received heavy fines. But the spotlight focussed on José Dirceu, former federal deputy and President Lula’s chief of staff during his first government.
Seen by many as a Machiavellian figure, Dirceu is a former student leader and left-wing guerrilla, who survived torture and imprisonment during the military regime because he was one of those exchanged for a kidnapped American ambassador and who then helped to found the PT. He was sentenced to just under 11 years imprisonment.
One of the judges, José Antonio Dias Toffoli, criticised the length of the sentences for white collar crimes that had not involved violence, saying they were medieval. However, because the Supreme Court is also the final court of appeal, the convicted cannot appeal against their sentences, unless they go to an international court .
The basic accusation against Dirceu, which the Supreme Court accepted, was that in 2003 and 2004 he authorised the payment of a total of R$55 million (US$20 million) in bribes to 18 congressmen belonging to the government’s alliance of supporting parties, most of them right-wing and centrist, in exchange for their votes on bills of interest to the PT. Why they needed bribes if their parties already supported the government in exchange for favours like ministries was not addressed.
There is no proof that Lula knew about the Mensalão, which he first apologised for, then later described as ‘folklore’. The main defence of the accused was that the PT, like every other party, had indulged in ‘Caixa 2’, slush funds to finance election campaigns, not bribes to buy votes.
The mainstream coverage of the trial has presented it as a uniquely PT corruption scheme, when in fact the man accused of being the central linchpin of the scheme, the publicist Marcos Valério (who transferred money from banks to politicians by means of fraudulent contracts and received a 40 year sentence) began his political involvement working for the PSDB, now the main opposition party.
For five years (1997-2002) during the presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Valério worked for the PSDB governor of Minas Gerais, Eduardo Azevedo. During this period he increased his personal wealth by 1600%.
Although the PSDB’s corruption scheme occurred before the PT’s, the people it involved have yet to be tried and, thanks to a Supreme Court decision to allow the accusations against them to be divided into separate cases – something they refused to do in the PT case – the case will be heard partly in a lower court, where appeals are possible.
The Mensalão is over, but many of the questions it raised remain unanswered. Was it a political trial? Were the sentences handed down fair or were they unduly harsh, longer than for many crimes of violence? Why was the Mensalão treated as a new, unprecedented phenomenon when President Cardoso used the same method in 1997 to change the constitution so that he could get re-elected? Why did the media give it such extensive, wall-to-wall coverage?
For some left-wing analysts, the right, faced with the prospect of losing the next presidential election to either Lula or President Dilma (whichever one of them ends up running for the PT) has set about criminalising the PT and crippling their candidates. Some even go so far as to talk about a ‘judicial coup’.
At the same time, many PT supporters, deeply disillusioned by abundant evidence of corruption in government departments, lament the party’s abandonment of its ethical standards. They see José Dirceu as the man behind the ‘end justifies the means’ philosophy and thus, in a way, the architect of his own downfall.