“Our government departments will not be led by anyone who’s been convicted of corruption,” said Jair Bolsonaro on October 31, three days after being elected president of Brazil. The goal of his statement, published on his social media feeds, was clear: to deny accusations in the press that he had asked Alberto Fraga, a member of Congress who was convicted of taking bribes, to join his administration.
A week earlier, a video had emerged on the Brazilian website R7 with Bolsonaro singing a different tune than his post-election statement. Surrounded by pro-gun members of Congress at a gathering in his home on October 23, Bolsonaro excitedly said, “I can already announce that Fraga will be the one to coordinate the [pro-gun parliamentary] front in my administration.” Hours after Bolsonaro’s tweet about eschewing corrupt officials, however, the R7 video was deleted from the website. It was only the latest episode in which R7, part of the right-wing evangelical Universal Church’s media empire, had crossed the line from journalism to a (poorly) disguised propaganda office.
A central talking point of Bolsonaro’s campaign was to market the far-right candidate as the only one who could free Brazil from the ills of corruption. It was an obvious strategy. Corruption was at the top of Brazilians’ lists of concerns, according to a poll published in December by Ibope, a research institute. Corruption ranked higher than health, education, and public safety. It only makes sense for the president-elect to try to disconnect his image from the corrupt politicians that voters have come to hate so intensely. But there’s a problem: Bolsonaro deliberately surrounded himself with these very same corrupt politicians.
Examining Bolsonaro’s top deputies and cabinet appointments, it becomes apparent that his speeches against corruption are nothing but empty words. From the allies arrayed alongside Bolsonaro during his first speech as president-elect to the transition team he assembled and the governmental department heads he’s appointed, Bolsonaro picked at least seven people tangled up in scandals, from lawsuits and official investigations to criminal convictions and even confession of guilt.
Onyx Lorenzoni – Chief of Staff
A month before Alberto Fraga was caught on tape complaining that the bribes he got were too low, fellow member of Congress Onyx Lorenzoni decided that there was no point in waiting to get caught. In May 2017, Lorenzoni openly admitted to having received R$100,000 ($26,000) in slush funds from a company named JBS, the world’s largest meat processor, which has been subject to many Brazilian Federal Police investigations. “It was the end of the campaign,” he said on a radio program broadcast in southern Brazil, referring to the 2014 election. “It was the end game; we were in debt with distributors.” He added: “I used the money.” The confession never led to any investigation.
Lorenzoni had already been investigated for allegedly receiving R$175,000 in bribes from Odebrecht, a major construction company whose owner was imprisoned as part of the Operation Car Wash corruption investigations that have roiled Brazilian politics. Last June, however, the inquiry into Lorenzoni was dismissed by the Supreme Court after Prosecutor General Raquel Dodge claimed that there was insufficient evidence to press charges.
Unlike what he did to Fraga, Bolsonaro did not try to dissociate himself from Lorenzoni. Instead, he invited the member of Congress to his victory speech, asked him to coordinate his transition team, and offered him a prime spot in his administration. As of January, Lorenzoni will take up a ministerial position as Bolsonaro’s new chief of staff.
Magno Malta – “Dream Vice President”
Hand in hand with Bolsonaro, Sen. Magno Malta opened the president-elect’s victory speech with a prayer. Months earlier, he had passed up on the chance to run with Bolsonaro — who called him his “dream vice president” — to make a bid for re-election in the Senate. But Malta failed.
Like others in Bolsonaro’s inner circle, Malta has been dogged by rumors around shady dealings and a court case. The Intercept Brasil revealed in September that Malta spent half a million reals of taxpayers’ money at two gas stations between September 2009 and last July. One spate of fuel purchases over a two-month period would be enough for a car to circle the Earth twice — and there would still be some gas left in Malta’s tank. There was, of course, a catch: Both gas stations belong to former state-level member of Congress José Tasso Oliveira de Andrade, who was convicted of tax evasion and stealing public money.
In September, a newspaper from Malta’s home state, Espírito Santo, revealed that he had falsely accused a bus-ticket collector of raping his own 2-year-old daughter. The accusation was particularly galling because Malta is the chair of a Congressional Committee investigating pedophilia. The man, Luis Alvez Lima, spent nine months in prison after the 2009 allegation before forensic tests proved that the girl had not been raped. Now, he’s suing Malta, alleging that the senator defamed him in pursuit of raising his own profile and, shockingly, overseeing the psychological torture he suffered in prison. Lima says he was subject to tooth pulling, choking, beating, and electric shocks to his genitals, among other forms of physical torture.
On November 6, Bolsonaro said his right-hand man might be the head of the Family Department, a new branch of government that would include the present Social Development Department and Human Rights Department. However, Malta’s bad reputation kept him out of Bolsonaro’s administration in the end. “I thought I’d get a department, but I didn’t,” he told The Intercept in an exclusive interview published last Wednesday. Malta’s disappointment was huge; he said he would be leaving politics.
Paulo Guedes – Secretary of Economy
Brazil’s soon-to-be secretary of the economy is under two separate investigations for fraud in investment funds. Paulo Guedes’s investment company, BR Educacional, got R$1 billion from the pension funds of five major state-owned companies — some of which were already under investigation for fraud. Being an economist himself, Guedes was personally responsible for the two funds that received the investment. And it seems that he may have decided to use a large sum of it for his own benefit: Guedes turned around and invested in HSM Educacional — now called BR Educação Executiva, a company he owns. HSM Educacional then bought an out-of-business Argentinian company for over R$16 million. The whole deal was a terrible investment, to say the least: Both companies ended up losing money for stockholders in the following years.
The second probe involving Guedes is looking into a possible fraud in an investment his company made in Enesa Participações, an engineering firm. Stockholders trusted the economist’s judgment with R$112 million — and they lost every penny. Caixa Econômica, one of Brazil’s public banks, owned a fifth of those stocks.
In addition to all this, Guedes’s company Bozano will likely profit from the neoliberal reforms he intends to push forward. Bozano’s investments depend on the privatization of health, education, and energy services — all part of Guedes’s economic strategy for Brazil. The soon-to-be secretary’s family also stands to benefit from Bolsonaro’s controversial plan to cut funds for public universities: Elizabeth Guedes, Paulo’s sister, is vice president of the National Association of Private Universities.
Marcos Pontes – Secretary of Science, Technology, and Communications
Bolsonaro appointed the only Brazilian to have ever traveled to space as head of the new Science, Technology, and Communications Department. Documents obtained by The Intercept indicate that Marcos Pontes, a reserve lieutenant colonel in the Brazilian Air Force, hid assets for over a decade and violated the Military Conduct Code.
While he was still on active duty at the Air Force, Pontes was investigated for supposedly owning part of the company Portally Eventos e Produções, registered under the name of one of his press representatives. The lieutenant colonel, though, has always denied his association with Portally, which sells knick-knacks related to his career as an astronaut, such as small figurines, mousepads, and watches. The Brazilian Military Code prohibits military service members from taking part in any commercial activity while they’re on active duty.
The investigation into Portally, however, never achieved closure due to the application of the statute of limitations. As soon as he was off the hook, Pontes, already on reserve duty at that point, became the company’s major shareholder, holding 80 percent of Portally. Three years earlier, when he unsuccessfully ran for Congress, Portally Eventos e Produções donated R$20,000 to his campaign. Nowadays, the website produces a steady source of income for Pontes. As a shareholder, he’s entitled to a monthly withdrawal from the company, “the value of which is to be set at each month.”
Augusto Heleno – Head Minister of the Institutional Security Cabinet
Bolsonaro’s head of the Institutional Security Cabinet, a federal branch with ministry status known by the initial GSI, was convicted in 2013 by Brazilian’s federal accountability office for authorizing illegal grant agreements for the 2011 Military Games, an international multi-sport competition held every four years, hosted in Rio de Janeiro that year. As head of the Brazilian Army’s Science and Technology Department at the time, Augusto Heleno authorized deals that amounted over R$22 million with two military-related institutes that were supposed to provide services during the games. According to the accountability office’s ruling, those institutes could not have been hired without a public tender, and there was no proof that the partnerships would benefit the army. Heleno appealed the decision, but the court upheld his conviction in 2016 and ordered him to pay a R$4,000 fine.
Leading the GSI, which will be under Heleno’s watch starting January, is a high-level office responsible for “immediately” advising the president, especially when it comes to military and security measures; analyzing potential risks to the stability of Brazilian institutions; managing crises in case of “grave and imminent threats”; and coordinating intelligence and security efforts.
In June, Bolsonaro asked Heleno to be his vice president, but the general’s party refused to partner with the candidate. After being elected, Bolsonaro first handed Heleno the Department of Defense. On November 7, he was shifted to lead the GSI. This game of musical chairs displeased future Secretary of Justice Sérgio Moro, who would normally oversee the GSI — making it easier for him to rein Bolsonaro in if his long history of authoritarian speech turned into real actions. Under Heleno, the cabinet is now more vulnerable to Bolsonaro’s control.
Luiz Henrique Mandetta – Secretary of Health
On November 20, an announcement came on Twitter for the appointment of Congress member, orthopedist, and pediatrician Luiz Henrique Mandetta as the leader of the Department of Health, which has the largest budget in the federal government. Mandetta held the seat of health secretary in Campo Grande, capital of the Midwestern state of Mato Grosso do Sul, between 2005 and 2010, and is now being investigated for influence trafficking, defrauding a public tender, and using slush funds while in office.
Criticized for yet another iffy pick for his administration, Bolsonaro merely stated that Mandetta hasn’t been prosecuted and will be taken out of office in case any “robust accusations” are made in the future.
Tereza Cristina – Secretary of Agriculture
“Poison Muse.” That’s the name many Brazilians have given to future Secretary of Agriculture Tereza Cristina. Though the nickname is used as an insult by her opponents, it was first coined as a compliment. In June, she presided over the congressional committee that pushed through a bill intended to facilitate the approval of new agrotoxics, chemical pesticides that help enhance produce cultivation, but pose serious threats to the environment and human health. The draft bill, which is yet to be voted on in the lower house of Congress, is known as the Poison Bill. But at a celebratory dinner on the committee vote, Cristina’s allies came up with “Poison Muse” to honor her achievement.
Cristina’s time in Congress is marked by some little-known facts. She was first elected in 2014 and has seen an almost 50,000 percent increase in her assets since then. And, most relevantly, she has questionable connections to JBS, the meat-processing company drowning in corruption scandals. Between 2011 and 2012, while she was still secretary of agribusiness in the Midwestern state of Mato Grosso do Sul, Cristina signed on to tax incentives for the company that are now under investigation. At the same time, she had a personal business partnership with JBS, leasing land for them to raise cattle. In 2014, she got over R$100,000 in campaign donations from the agricultural giant.
Though the tax incentives she signed off on are in the center of the investigation of corruption in her home state, Cristina’s role in it hasn’t been investigated so far. “At this time, she has our full trust,” Bolsonaro said after the Brazilian press highlighted this fishy chapter in Cristina’s political history. “I’m also the defendant in [a case awaiting trial in] the Supreme Court. So what?” Bolsonaro went on, referring to his ongoing suit for supposedly inciting the crime of rape (in Brazil, it’s a felony to incite the practice of crimes).
Julian Lemos – Member of the Transition Team
The leader of Bolsonaro’s party in the state of Paraíba, in northeastern Brazil, Member of Congress Julian Lemos coordinated his campaign in the region, which is historically an electoral stronghold of Bolsonaro’s rival Workers’ Party. In 2011, Lemos was convicted of fraud for using a fake certificate to secure a contract between his company and the state of Paraíba. Lemos pleaded not guilty and appealed the decision, and before the second trial, the crime hit the statute of limitations and Lemos did not face any punishment.
Bolsonaro’s “close friend,” as the president-elect himself once referred to Lemos, has also been accused of domestic violence by his ex-wife and his sister, and was arrested once on the charge. Though both women later recanted their testimonies, a forensic examination showed multiple wounds on his sister’s neck, shoulder, and arm. The investigation is ongoing.
Aware of Lemos’s conviction for fraud, Bolsonaro declared in March that many of his allies “have messed up, like Julian Lemos here, but are people with something to add to our army.”
Jamil Megid Jr. – Member of the transition team
Jamil Megid coordinated the 2011 Military Games and worked on the security arrangements for other major events held in Rio, such as the 2013 World Youth Day, the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and the 2016 Olympics. He was convicted in 2013 by Brazil’s federal accountability office for irregularities in the Military Games.
The accountability office says that some of the services and equipment for the event were hired through padded contracts and were never even provided. The court verified, for example, that the furniture lease for the games cost R$2.6 million more than it would have taken for the army to buy those items. The military also spent R$4.3 million on workers who never provided any services. Earlier this year, however, the conviction was annulled. The accountability office judge responsible for reviewing the case said that organizing the games was so difficult and challenging that it would be unfair to punish Megid for his mistakes.
Alexandre Frota – Party Colleague Invited to Victory Speech
One of the select few chosen to appear next to Bolsonaro at his victory speech, Alexandre Frota had just gotten elected to serve his first term as a member of Congress for São Paulo, Brazil’s largest state. Before entering politics under Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party, the former porn actor was already somewhat of an idol among the president’s ultraconservative fandom for his rants against “political correctness” and “gender ideology” — a deprecating reference to the debate of gender issues.
In 2015, Frota laughingly described on national television how he had raped a “mãe de santo,” a priestess of Afro-Brazilian religions. The actor spent over five minutes telling the talk-show audience how he engaged in intercourse without the woman’s consent. At one point, he admitted to holding the back of her neck so strongly that she blacked out. According to his account, even after rendering the victim unconscious, he did not stop. The audience howled.
What clearly sounded like the impromptu confession of a crime was then qualified by Frota as “fiction” shortly after the heavy criticism he got from women’s groups. He was investigated for making apologia for the crime of rape but was never charged. The district attorney said that “Alexandre did not intend to boast for his (reprehensible) conduct, but only to narrate an episode of his life” — which contradicted Frota’s version that the story was fictional. The supposed rape was never investigated and Bolsonaro never commented on the case.
It May Not Be Corruption, but …
There’s a second category of members in Bolsonaro’s team: those who tread through a gray area of morality.
Sérgio Moro – Secretary of Justice
Sérgio Moro was a judge-turned-national-hero for his harsh stance in cases related to the Operation Car Wash. He sentenced Brazil’s former President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in 2017. The appeal hearing upheld the conviction earlier this year. In April, when Lula was ahead in presidential election polls, he was imprisoned. Over the years, Moro has repeatedly stated that he would never go into politics. “It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to seek any sort of political office because that could — let’s put it this way — raise questions about the integrity of the work I’ve done so far,” he said in an interview with Veja magazine. Less than a year later, Moro seems to have radically changed his opinion. On November 1, the man responsible for removing Bolsonaro’s strongest competitor from the presidential race accepted the president-elect’s invitation to become secretary of justice.
Moro’s conflict of interest became even more explicit after Bolsonaro’s vice president, Gen. Hamilton Mourão, told the press that the invitation had first been made while the campaign was still going. A few days before the first round of voting, Moro lifted the gag order on the testimony of Lula’s former Finance Minister Antonio Palocci. The decision breathed new life into Palocci’s earlier accusations, still mostly unproven, regarding bribe payments during Lula and his successor former President Dilma Rousseff’s governments, including R$40 million allegedly directed to Rousseff’s campaign.
It took Moro less than a week after accepting his new position to signal that his dedication to the anti-corruption crusade may no longer be a priority. In 2017, the judge said at a Harvard event that he considered political slush funds to be even worse than corruption — but that didn’t keep him from declaring his “great admiration” for Onyx Lorenzoni, the future chief of staff who confessed to using slush funds on his campaign, in November. “As to his mistakes, he himself has admitted [them] and taken the measures to repair them,” Moro said. “He has my full trust,” he added this week. The fact that Lorenzoni was never investigated, let alone punished for the crime, doesn’t seem to bother the newly appointed secretary of justice.
Marcos Cintra – Member of the Transition Team
The economist, one of Paulo Guedes’s advisers, is the chair of Financiadora de Inovação e Pesquisa, or Innovation and Research Financing, a public company under the Science and Technology Department that offers grants to research institutions and companies in the fields of science, technology, and innovation. Marcos Cintra is also vice chair on leave of the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, one of Brazil’s most acclaimed private research institutions and most expensive universities. In 2017, the average monthly fee at the university was 4,000 reals.
Bolsonaro’s plans to transfer responsibility for public universities from the Department of Education to the new Science, Technology, and Communications Department — as well as his intentions to cut down on public universities’ funding — might end up personally benefiting Cintra.
Roberto da Cunha Castello Branco – Member of the Transition Team
The economist is a board member of Invepar, a private company that operates 11 of Brazil’s biggest public concerns, including the Guarulhos Airport in São Paulo; Metrô Rio, the subway system in Rio de Janeiro; and VLT Carioca, the light rail system in Rio. Advising the president-elect’s economic team, which already announced plans to broaden privatizations, could directly benefit Branco’s businesses.
Not Just His Allies
The president-elect has his own shady personal history with corruption. Bolsonaro spent 11 years of his 27-year political career in Progressists, the political party with most politicians investigated in the Operation Car Wash. He left in 2016, roughly two years after the investigation started making daily headlines — but not before admitting that his party had received hundreds of thousands in bribes from the agri-giant JBS in 2014.
“Yes, the party got bribes. What party doesn’t get bribes?” Bolsonaro said last year. He then claimed to have returned the R$200,000 in JBS funds that had been transferred to his campaign account and to have accepted instead a transfer in the same amount from party funds: “I take [money] from the party funds. [JBS’s] money went to another congressman.”
Earlier this year, the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo revealed that Bolsonaro kept a ghost worker among his 14 cabinet employees. Walderice Santos da Conceição was listed as the member of Congress’s aide for 15 years — but she wasn’t actually doing any work for the government. Instead, she owns a small business selling açaí berries, the popular Brazilian fruit usually served smashed and frozen in bowls. Both she and her husband carried out minor tasks at Bolsonaro’s summer house in Angra dos Reis, a town near Rio de Janeiro.
Bolsonaro denied the paper’s accusations and kept Conceição on his payroll until August. During a debate, presidential candidate Guilherme Boulos, of the Socialism and Freedom Party, confronted Bolsonaro on the matter. “Who is Wal?” he asked. Bolsonaro then claimed Folha didn’t find her in his cabinet back in January because she was on vacation. His response prompted the paper to pay Conceição another visit, which led to the article “Bolsonaro’s ghost worker is still selling açaí during office hours.” She was finally fired that same day.
The president-elect also hid over R$2.6 million in assets from the Supreme Electoral Court, according to a cross-check done by Brazilian newspaper O Globo, using the court’s database and public information from notaries’ offices. The article ran the same day Veja magazine published a cover story based on over 500 pages of court documents dating back to 2008, which contained serious accusations made by Bolsonaro’s ex-wife Ana Cristina Siqueira Valle in their divorce proceedings. She claimed that Bolsonaro hid millions in assets, in line with the findings of O Globo; that most of his income came from unidentified sources, since he made roughly R$100,000 a month, according to her, but his salary as a member of Congress and a military reservist only accounted for about a third of that; and that he had stolen jewelry and cash amounting to R$1.6 million from a safe she kept in a bank.
Though the theft really did happen, the investigation led nowhere, so there is no proof that Bolsonaro was responsible for the crime. However, in another court case involving the former couple, the president-elect claimed that his ex had taken their child to Norway to blackmail him for the contents of the stolen safe. At the time, Valle told Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that she had left the country due to death threats from Bolsonaro.
None of these accusations have been properly investigated so far. All were later disavowed by Bolsonaro’s ex — who ran for office in these elections using his last name — as “fake news.” Valle now denies having accused Bolsonaro of threatening her, even though there’s a paper trail of her claims and many of her then-friends in Norway backed up the original narrative.
Aware that the article would be coming out, Bolsonaro’s team seems to have called upon party colleague and now Congress-member-elect Joice Hasselmann to help discredit the story before it even ran. Hasselmann, who was responsible for starting some of the biggest election rumors, posted a video stating that a magazine had received R$600 million to spread lies about Bolsonaro. Mostly known among Brazilian journalists for having plagiarized over 60 articles back when she was a journalist herself, Hasselmann offered no proof or sources to back up her allegation. No matter how absurd it was, however, the rumor stuck. The accusations against Bolsonaro, on the other hand, did not.
It’s a pattern with Bolsonaro: Nothing sticks. Neither did the discovery that Brazilian businesses had spent up to R$12 million each to have marketing agencies fire hundreds of millions of pro-Bolsonaro messages on WhatsApp. If confirmed, the scheme exposed by Folha de S.Paulo would mean that Bolsonaro — knowingly or not — benefited from “second-degree slush funds,” which would be illegal under a 2015 law that prohibits companies from making donations to political parties and campaigns. The Supreme Electoral Court is investigating the case but has made no progress so far. Meanwhile, believing their candidate’s claims that all these reports are fake news, his supporters coined the phrase “I’m Bolsonaro’s slush funds.”
With such a loyal constituency, it doesn’t take much effort from Bolsonaro to brush off any of the accusations against him — which is why he had an easy time pretending he never asked Alberto Fraga to serve in his administration in the first place. Or why, just last month, he felt confident enough to say on video that he had been wrongly fined in 2012 for fishing in an area protected by environmental law. “I wasn’t there,” he said — even though there’s a photograph showing he was.
Likewise, there’s a video of Bolsonaro telling fellow Member of Congress Maria do Rosário in 2003 that he “would never rape her because she isn’t worth it,” then pushing her and calling her a “whore.” He would repeat the insults in 2014, during a speech in Congress, telling her once again that she wasn’t worthy of being raped by him. Since the second round of misogynistic insults against the Workers’ Party politician, he’s been convicted for slander — and has lost two appeals — and is still on trial for supposedly inciting rape. Four years later, it’s clear none of this damaged his image.
This weekend, one of Operation Car Wash’s many investigations touched on the Bolsonaro clan’s activities. News broke that the president-elect’s son Flávio Bolsonaro, who serves as a state-level member of Congress from Rio and was just elected senator, employed a driver investigated by the Treasury Department for suspicious bank transactions.
The driver, a police officer named Fabrício José de Carlos Queiroz, is a friend of the Bolsonaro family. The Treasury Department’s probe kicked off when the Treasury office responsible for investigating suspicious financial activity noted that there were over R$1 million in transactions to and from Queiroz’s personal account between January 2016 and January 2017 — an unusually high level of activity for the driver.
The Treasury Department report also revealed that eight aides connected to the Bolsonaros made several deposits to Queiroz. One of the shady transactions from Queiroz’s account is a R$24,000 check to Michelle Bolsonaro, the president-elect’s wife.
Jair Bolsonaro claims the money was part of the payment of a R$40,000 loan he had given his son’s driver and personal friend. Asked by the media why the check was made out to his wife, he said it was for practical matters: He didn’t have time to go to the bank. The response became fodder for internet humor when it was pointed out that, weeks earlier, a news site had reported that Bolsonaro went to the bank three times in four days.
With a track record like this, it’s no wonder that Bolsonaro would pick these people to serve by his side in the government. What remains astonishing is how this career politician, with almost three decades in Congress under his belt, has managed to validate himself as Brazil’s anti-establishment miracle cure for corruption. How long can his facade last?