The Brazilian Bar Association and a congressman have called for the suspension of Justice Minister Sergio Moro after reports published by an online magazine appeared to question Moro’s impartiality in a case that saw a former leftist president convicted of corruption.
The Intercept report said that, as a crusading anti-corruption judge, Moro coordinated with prosecutors in the case that led to the conviction and jailing of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
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Lula was blocked from running as a presidential candidate because of the 2018 conviction. The leftist leader led opinion polls heading into the October election, which was won by far-right Jair Bolsonaro.
The website said it was only beginning to report on an “enormous trove” of leaked messages between Moro and prosecutors on Telegram, an encrypted messaging platform, that it had received from an anonymous source.
The Bar Association also recommended that all the prosecutors involved in the Car Wash scandal probe be disbanded “so that the investigation can run without any suspicions”.
The five-year investigation, known as Car Wash, uncovered billions of dollars of political bribery involving politicians and bureaucrats.
Moro denied any wrongdoing. “There is no orientation in those messages,” he told reporters on Monday. He added that he couldn’t confirm if the published messages were real because he had not saved them.
In an earlier statement, he called the reports “sensationalist”.
“Regarding the content of the messages citing me, there is no sign of any abnormality or directing of actions as a magistrate, despite them being taken out of context,” he said.
Car Wash investigation
Moro, who left his role as the most prominent judge in the Car Wash probe to become justice minister in January, also criticised The Intercept for not naming “the person responsible for the criminal invasion of the prosecutors’ cell phones.”
The excerpts, released on Sunday by the Intercept, included exchanges in which Moro made suggestions to prosecutors about the focus, pace and sequence of investigations.
Attorneys for Lula, a leftist icon who remains one of the most influential opposition figures in Brazil, have been petitioning the Supreme Court for his release and seized on the reports to argue that his sentence should be overturned.
The team of federal prosecutors cited in the messages said they had acted properly throughout the Car Wash investigation.
They said in written statements that they had been targeted by a hacker, adding that they were concerned about messages being taken out of context and possibly forged.
Andrew Fishman, managing editor at The Intercept Brasil, told Reuters in a statement that Moro and prosecutors had said over the years that they were not collaborating, and “the reporting shows that their private actions contradict their own public statements at the time.”
Meanwhile, legislators in Brasilia suggested the controversy would not slow their work on an overhaul of the country’s social security system, which the government considers essential to kick-starting an economic recovery.
Congressman Marcelo Ramos, who heads the pension reform committee in the lower house of the National Congress, said he and his colleagues had a responsibility not to slow their work.
Still, he told Reuters, Moro should temporarily step down as justice minister until he is able to explain his collaboration with prosecutors. That would give the federal police, which Moro oversees, freedom to investigate the former judge if deemed necessary.
‘Blocked from last year’s election’
The office of President Jair Bolsonaro told the Globo TV network late on Monday that the leader had “complete trust” in Moro.
Earlier, a spokesman had said Bolsonaro would not comment on the situation until he had a chance to meet in person with his minister on Tuesday.
Moro’s conviction of Lula was the highest-profile verdict in the ongoing Car Wash probe, which has led to the imprisonment of scores of powerful politicians and businessman in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America, reshaping the region’s political landscape.
Some excerpted conversations published by The Intercept showed prosecutors discussing how to block journalists from interviewing Lula in jail during last year’s campaign.
A message attributed to one of the prosecutors, Laura Tessler, suggested that such an interview could help Lula’s stand-in on the Workers Party ticket.
The prosecutors said in their statement on Monday that imprisonment involves restricting the communications of all inmates, regardless of who they are. Tessler did not respond to a request for comment.
In a written statement, Lula’s legal team said the leak proved what they have argued in court: that Moro and federal prosecutors teamed up to ensure that their client would be quickly found guilty and blocked from last year’s election.
The Intercept said it had secured the archive of texts, audio and video outside of Brazil so “numerous journalists have access to it” and no one country can block use of the material.