Renowned Brazilian Judge Sérgio Moro of "Operation Car Wash" on Exposing Corruption

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The Brazilian judge whose office spearheaded a massive corruption and bribery investigation said that his country’s legal system and democracy are stronger as a result.

Judge Sérgio Moro

Judge Sérgio Moro, who many hail as a modern-day savior of Brazil’s legal system and by de facto its democracy, offered his insights on “the environment of systemic corruption that was uncovered” by his office’s ongoing investigation in a public lecture April 19 at the University of Miami.

Hosted by University of Miami School of Law’s International Graduate Law Programs and the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce of Florida, Moro was greeted with and received several standing ovations from the audience in Storer Auditorium, filled to capacity with a large contingent of Brazilians from the Miami community.  

“Operation Lavo Jato/Car Wash is not a conquest of the police or the courts or the justice system, but instead a conquest by Brazilian democracy,” Moro said. “While corruption is shameful, there is no shame in the enforcement of the law, and the exposure of public corruption is an honor to a nation.”

In her introduction, Miami Law Vice Dean Osamudia James said that the values of integrity, honesty, and accountability that Moro battles for are the same that the School of Law promotes in its students. Professor of Law Emeritus Keith Rosenn called Moro “one of the most popular figures in Brazil today who, if he were a candidate (in the upcoming presidential election) would very likely win.”

Rosenn noted that Fortune Magazine recently named Moro—a judge of “first instance” (a parallel to a U.S. district court judge) in Curitiba, the capital of Parana, a relatively remote region in Brazil—to its list of the “World’s Greatest Leaders” and Time Magazine listed him among its “100 Most Influential People.”

“I’m really emotional. This guy means a lot to me, a lot to all Brazilians,” said Mattheus David Carvalho, a sophomore in civil engineering at UM, who attended. “He put in jail one of the worst guys, and he changed the path of the country.”

Operation Car Wash launched in March 2015 when police began an investigation of four individuals for black market exchanges. When one suspect was linked to an executive of Petrobras, the state-controlled oil company, the case began to spread like a fuel fire. The scope prompted Brazil’s Supreme Court to effectively end the long-standing tradition of impunity that allowed those in power accused of wrongdoing to escape prosecution. Former Presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff were among those indicted and imprisoned.

To date 33 of the 60 criminal cases have been tried, and 157 of the current 289 defendants brought to justice, according to Moro, who said he could not predict an end to the prosecutions.

An estimated $1.9 billion were paid in bribes. Three of the largest construction companies in Brazil, implicated in the vast scheme that involved contracts doled out at inflated prices and bribes paid to conceal the practice, admitted their wrongdoing and reached deals with the prosecutor’s office.

Moro offered several reflections, among them the need for ample resources to conduct such an expansive investigation; extensive international support; and a rule of transparency.
He highlighted, too, the importance of public opinion as an ally when investigating leaders who believe themselves to be above the law. “Public opinion can work as a shield. It would be great if a judge could work at his desk to do their work, but you need allies to block attempts to obstruct justice,” he said.

For Moro, a “very disturbing” turn of the case occurred when a senator was assigned to head a special investigative commission and then was discovered to be accepting bribes from those implicated so that they might avoid scrutiny.  

He rejected the criticism that the operation has unfairly targeted the leftist political party, saying, “no one has been investigated based on political party, but instead on criminal behavior, especially bribery and corruption.”   

Moro was asked if corruption is part of Brazilian culture.

“Corruption is not a tropical disease. It’s not part of the culture but instead a product of weak institutions. What is needed is to build stronger institutions, but a major problem is impunity.

“Democracy is not at risk in Brazil in any way, and it may be that the era of the robber barons is coming to an end,” he added. Still, he cautioned that he was concerned over signs that the menace of the impunity practice was resurfacing.

“We have to avoid such a setback—there should be a clear break from this past of impunity, and the government is responsible to adopt new policies to reduce the incentives to corruption,” Moro urged. “The economy, the legal system, and our democracy are stronger as a result of this criminal case.”

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