A few minutes before 5 p.m. a few Sundays ago, Leandro Demori stared at his computer and prepared to break the biggest story of his life. For weeks, Demori, the executive editor of The Intercept Brazil, and his small staff of reporters had pored over more than a thousand pages of documents that had been leaked to the news outlet by an anonymous source.
The documents detailed text messages and other communication between prosecutors and judges who had carried out and overseen Operation Car Wash, the massive political corruption scandal that over the last four years had implicated hundreds of politicians, shaken the foundations of Brazil’s democratic political system, and even sent a popular former president to prison.
Now Demori and his crew were about to expose potential corruption within the operation, including possible evidence of improper collusion between prosecutors and the star judge in charge of its biggest cases. Demori knew the revelations would unleash a storm of fury inside Brazil’s right-wing government and among its leftist parties and activists, too. The stakes were high. The Intercept wasn’t just taking aim at another political figure who’d done something wrong in a country full of them. It was targeting one of the most powerful and popular people in modern Brazilian history: Sergio Moro, the federal judge who had spearheaded Operation Car Wash from its very beginning.
The case was a routine money-laundering investigation when Moro, a little-known federal judge in the southern city of Curitiba, first took it on in 2014. It drew its name, Operação Lava Jato in Portuguese, from the fact that a car wash sat at the center of the initial scandal. But over the next four years, under Moro’s guidance, it blossomed into the world’s broadest political corruption scandal. Car Wash implicated nearly 200 politicians, including multiple presidents and some of Brazil’s top business magnates, and it confirmed what many ordinary Brazilians long suspected: that their government was one big pay-to-play scheme, perpetuated by self-interested, self-dealing politicians. As Car Wash grew, so did Moro’s reputation. To Brazilians fatigued with endemic corruption, he became a superhero and was even depicted as such on the cover of magazines and at nationwide protests.
It wasn’t just that Moro had brought corrupt politicians to heel. He also refused to show fealty to Brazil’s elites and never withered, even in the face of the most powerful Brazilian politicians. In July 2017, Moro convicted Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former president from the leftist Workers’ Party who’d left office in 2011 with approval ratings north of 80%, on graft charges, sentencing the man popularly known as Lula to 9½ years in prison and sending an apparent signal to Brazilians that no one was safe from scrutiny.
Brazilians all but begged Moro to run for president in the 2018 elections, and early polls suggested he could win. The New York Times called him “the face of the national reckoning for Brazil’s ruling class.” Anti-corruption organizations showered Moro and Car Wash with awards. The U.S. Department of Justice, citing da Silva’s conviction, said Moro’s investigation had put Brazil “at the forefront of the anti-corruption fight, both at home and abroad.”
Not everyone was convinced. The left saw Moro, who described himself as apolitical, as the face of an elite conspiracy to destroy da Silva and the Workers’ Party. And when Moro took his current position as minister of justice in the government of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, the racist, sexist and homophobic authoritarian who rode anti-Workers’ Party sentiment to election in October, it was hard to ignore the circumstances that led to Moro’s powerful new position: Da Silva’s conviction ― and subsequent banishment from the race even as he led pre-election polls ― had paved the way for Bolsonaro’s victory. Moro looked naive at best, craven and opportunistic at worst.
When Demori and The Intercept Brazil published their stories, though, they released an avalanche of criticism. Inside that trove of documents, the reporters had discovered “highly controversial, politicized, and legally dubious internal discussions” about cases related to Operation Car Wash. A series of three stories, published in Portuguese and translated to English, made explosive claims: Moro and the prosecutors behind Car Wash had engaged in “serious wrongdoing, unethical behavior, and systematic deceit” throughout the investigation, particularly in the case against da Silva.
The revelations, The Intercept said in its initial story, lent credence to leftist accusations that the case against da Silva had always been a witch hunt meant to keep him from becoming president again. Even to those who don’t believe that’s the case, though, they painted the picture of an overzealous judge who, in an effort to subject political elites to the law in ways they’d never been before, appeared to have subverted it himself. It appeared that even as he alleged that da Silva and other politicians were perverting Brazil for their own benefit, Moro had done the same — in a manner that undermined its democracy and opened its doors to an authoritarian takeover.
Moro’s reputation is now in tatters. A week after The Intercept published its first stories, a conservative outlet that had long championed Moro’s cause put his face on its cover as a cracked concrete bust. “DESMORANDO,” it screamed.
Moro, the magazine said, was “falling apart.”
‘The Messages Cross A Line’
Moro’s signature ruling now appears to be on the brink of collapse, too.
“The possibility of maximum impact is a scenario where the Supreme Court looks at this and says, well, that means the sentences Moro issued are null,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.
“That,” Santoro said, “could happen with Lula.”
There are significant differences between Brazil’s legal system and that of the United States, but one key similarity is the reliance on impartial judges. The person in the black robe is not supposed to take sides, and a judge sure isn’t supposed to help one side shape its legal strategy or its efforts to garner public support for its case.
And yet it seems that’s exactly what Moro did.
The Intercept’s initial round of stories exposed apparent conversations between Moro and Deltan Dallagnol, the lead prosecutor in da Silva’s case, that showed the pair seemingly coordinating both legal and media strategies in an apparent effort to secure the former president’s conviction along with media and popular support for it. There are signs in the stories that the coordination may have directly influenced the case: In another chat, Dallagnol tells Moro that he thinks the case against da Silva is weak, and Moro tells him to press on. The judge advises the prosecutor on when to file briefs. He derides da Silva’s defense strategy and recommends that Dallagnol further train a prosecutor from the case because he felt she wasn’t talented enough. Dallagnol removed her from the case entirely.
The reports portray a judge and a prosecutor brazen in their flouting of basic legal ethics, at bare minimum.
“The messages cross a line,” said Matthew Taylor, an American University professor and expert on Brazil’s legal system. “The basic idea of a court system is that you have a triad where the judge sits equidistant from both sides. If there were signs that Moro was conversing directly with Lula’s defense team, I imagine prosecutors would complain about that.”
To the Brazilian left, none of this is news. During his eight years as president, da Silva oversaw an economic boom and used the resulting riches to implement redistributive policies in an attempt to alleviate extreme poverty and address Brazil’s sky-high rates of income inequality. Dilma Rousseff, da Silva’s handpicked successor, won two more elections in 2010 and 2014, giving the PT, as the Workers’ Party is known in Brazil, a grip on electoral power unrivaled since Brazil’s return to democratic governance three decades ago. But in 2014, the economy collapsed and Rousseff’s popularity did too, and the centrist politicians who’d disputed Rousseff’s election victory began a crusade to defeat her by other means.
They impeached Rousseff in 2016, ostensibly because she had illegally manipulated budget funds to obscure the scope of Brazil’s economic predicament. But they used the cover of corruption and larger misdeeds, even though Car Wash’s tentacles hadn’t reached the president herself. (More than 100 of the lawmakers who voted for her removal, including the head of Brazil’s lower house, had been linked to scandals.)
Three weeks later, at a fiery press conference in Curitiba, the Car Wash team announced a litany of charges against da Silva, including that he’d illegally benefited from an $800,000 renovation to a beachside condo. It was the beginning of a process that would lead to his conviction the next July.
To the left, the story was clear: If the centrists couldn’t beat the PT at the ballot box, they’d use legal mechanisms, including Car Wash, to criminalize the party instead. As da Silva’s trial unfolded, his legal team pointed to serious deficiencies in the case against him, including an inability to prove that he even owned the condo in question. They also raised concerns about Moro’s improper leaking of wiretapped phone calls related to the case, which had helped bolster the public perception that da Silva and Rousseff were trying to cover up wrongdoing.
“We’ve been claiming that this whole operation has been an orchestrated operation to politically harm Lula,” Valeska Zanin Martins, one of da Silva’s defense attorneys, said this week. “There’s more than enough, according to our legislation and our constitution, to annul the entire proceeding. The case has always been there.”
But The Intercept’s stories were validating to a movement that has for two years made da Silva’s freedom its singular cause. The PT called for an immediate review of his conviction and for his release from prison in Curitiba. They were joined by people from across the world who had long regarded da Silva’s imprisonment with suspicion. In the United States, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has signed onto letters raising concerns about da Silva’s conviction, tweeted that he stood “with political and social leaders across the globe who are calling on Brazil’s judiciary to release Lula and annul his conviction.”
And for Moro, the most damning reaction came not from his leftist critics but from Brazil’s elites, including many of the journalists, lawyers, judges and legal entities that had backed Operation Car Wash for years. Moro’s leaks had earned him a rebuke from Brazil’s Supreme Court, and legal experts poked holes in both Dallagnol’s case against da Silva and Moro’s conviction. But for the most part, elite sentiment remained firmly behind the judge and his team.
Not now. A day after the first round of stories were published, Brazil’s national bar association unanimously said that all prosecutors and judges ― including Moro ― named in the leaks should be removed from office. Media outlets that had praised Car Wash, including the traditionally conservative Estadão newspaper, called for Moro’s immediate resignation. Even Car Wash’s defenders began to suggest that da Silva’s conviction could be ruled illegitimate.
“If everything is true, if there was an actual politicization of justice, if the conversations really show an influence on Lula’s process or any other, then we would have the absolute nullification of Moros’ decision on the sentence,” Vera Chemim, a lawyer and professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, told HuffPost Brazil.
Initial reactions from the Supreme Court, a body that has largely upheld Moro’s rulings and supported the Car Wash team’s findings, suggest that da Silva could find a sympathetic audience there, too.
“It should be noted that no one is above the law, especially the Constitution: neither administrators, nor parliamentarians, nor even judges,” Supreme Court justice Edson Fachin, who has publicly backed Car Wash’s investigations, said during da Silva’s initial hearing in front of the court earlier this month. “Unorthodox procedures to attain, even if legitimate, should not be welcomed.”
Da Silva’s first chance at freedom came Tuesday, when he appeared in front of the Supreme Court as part of an appeal process that began before the new revelations came to light. His attorneys argued that Moro’s actions had prejudiced the case and that da Silva should be freed.
“He has to be released,” Martins, da Silva’s attorney, had told HuffPost before the hearing. “We believe it was proved over and over again that Moro acted in a biased nature and violated laws of Brazil and international laws. We believe it’s all been proven. The fact that there’s a doubt requires his immediate release until this is all solved.”
But a majority of justices ruled instead that da Silva must remain in prison until later this year, when they have time to evaluate Moro’s actions.
As a result, da Silva, who also faces charges in multiple other cases that are still unfolding, will remain behind bars at least until August, when the court will conduct a full review of his case.
By then, the case could toss and turn even more. The Intercept Brazil has continued to publish new information from the documents: Over the weekend, it revealed messages that showed prosecutors worrying about Moro’s potential ethical violations in the case, while Folha, Brazil’s largest newspaper that has partnered with The Intercept to examine the leaks, reported that prosecutors had expressed doubt about the credibility of the construction executive linked to the beachside condo, who changed his story under apparent pressure.
The Intercept, meanwhile, has enough material to keep breaking stories on this subject for “many, many months,” Demori said.
It’s hard to imagine a bigger black mark on Car Wash or Moro’s record than da Silva’s absolution. The case against da Silva made him the face of Brazilian corruption. But that was, as journalist Alex Cuadros wrote in 2018, always the “fatal contradiction” in the crusade against the former president. Brazil’s graft problems always stretched far beyond da Silva, and still do. By painting him as a unique criminal mastermind, they obscured the size of the problem and what’s necessary to fix it, and helped prejudice the public, too. Now many of Moro’s other convictions ― in more solid cases against politicians who undoubtedly did worse than da Silva ― could be in jeopardy, as well, and a country still rife with corruption “may lose the good things that Lava Jato brought to Brazil because of the problems with Lava Jato,” Santoro said. “And the problems with Lava Jato are really big.”
Another Elite Failure In A Country Full Of Them
Moro has not explicitly denied the veracity of the messages and documents that The Intercept has published. But he has attempted to discredit the outlet, which he referred to last week as a “sensationalist” publication that engaged in “low-level villainy” in publishing the information. In a hearing before the Brazilian Senate, he attempted to criminalize the leaks, reiterating that they were the result of hackers working for “a well-structured criminal gang.”
Bolsonaro, who owes his presidency in part to Moro’s conviction of da Silva, has stood by his justice minister. At a soccer match in São Paulo, the president raised Moro’s arms in the air as if he were a triumphant boxing champion, a stark contrast to his quick discarding of other ministers who’ve brought negative attention to his disorganized and fitful right-wing government. Last week, Bolsonaro, a man with a long history of making homophobic statements, lobbed even more at The Intercept Brazil: He referred to Glenn Greenwald ― the U.S.-born journalist who lives in Brazil and helped launch The Intercept ― and his partner David Miranda, a leftist congressman from Rio, as “girls” during a news conference. His supporters have joined in, starting Twitter hashtags to call for Greenwald’s deportation and flooding the outlet’s reporters’ social media feeds and email inboxes with death threats, Demori said. Even more threatening is that Brazil’s Federal Police, part of the ministry Moro heads, has indicated that it could bring criminal charges against whoever leaked the documents.
Moro has taken a hit from the initial revelations: His popularity dropped 10 percentage points, to mere tenths of a point above majority approval, in the wake of the revelations. But even that means he’s still one of the most popular political figures in the country, and he has clearly attempted to mobilize public opinion in his favor, much as he always has to bolster his investigations. On Sunday, his supporters held rallies across Brazil to back his efforts and Car Wash as a whole ― the underlying message the right has sought to send is that when it came to jailing Lula, the ends justified the means, no matter what they were.
Car Wash also remains popular, and it likely won’t collapse in a heap unless there is even more damning information to come.
But the public support can’t hide what has become more and more evident over the last two years. By the time of da Silva’s conviction, it was clear Car Wash risked discrediting Brazil’s political system, and by 2018, it was indisputable that Car Wash had played a distinct role in doing just that, in a way that let the authoritarian Bolsonaro co-opt the language of anti-corruption in order to win the presidency.
It was easy for many to shake that off as an unfortunate byproduct of an effort to clean up Brazil’s political system rather than the product itself. Now its legacy, at least in the case involving da Silva, is undeniable. Moro’s effort to hold elites accountable was just another elite failure that helped erode faith in Brazil’s institutions and helped bring a democracy to its knees.
“It could be a Hollywood script about the dangers of too much ambition and too much vanity,” Santoro said. “The problems with Car Wash didn’t begin now. We’ve seen many instances in the past of Moro abusing his power, and mostly as a society we failed to react to that. Now we are paying the price.”