A group of House Democrats is demanding answers from Attorney General Merrick Garland about the US Justice Department’s role in Brazil’s wide-ranging anti-corruption probe, known as Operation Car Wash, or Lava Jato in Portugese. In a letter, obtained by The Nation, that was sent to Garland today, 23 House Democrats, led by Georgia Representative Hank Johnson, renewed concerns over the secretive collaboration between the US Justice Department and Brazilian officials in Lava Jato, which led to the wrongful imprisonment of former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva and paved the way for far-right nationalist Jair Bolsonaro to win the presidency.
The lawmakers are following up on a similar letter sent to Attorney General William Barr in 2019—as well as a letter that 77 Brazilian legislators wrote to US members of Congress last year, asking them to help investigate the Justice Department’s involvement in Lava Jato—but this is the first letter of its kind to Garland. “The response we received, nearly ten months later, contained no substantive information and appeared to be dismissive of Congress’s constitutional oversight role,” Johnson’s office wrote in a Dear Colleague e-mail asking members to endorse the letter.
“Members of Congress deserve a real answer and—more importantly—Brazilians deserve a real answer,” Alexander Main, director of international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told The Nation in an e-mailed statement. “With Lula and the Brazilian left now well positioned to win next year’s elections, Garland and the Biden administration should be transparent about the US involvement in Lava Jato and take corrective measures to ensure that DOJ activities abroad don’t promote unethical and potentially anti-democratic judicial operations in Brazil or any other foreign country.”
The letter is also the first since Brazil’s Supreme Court decided to annul the criminal convictions against Lula, allowing him to run in next year’s presidential election. As Brazil’s first Workers’ Party president, Lula ended his second term with an approval rating of 87 percent. But he was imprisoned in 2018 on dubious corruption and money-laundering charges, disqualifying him from serving in political office even as he led polls. A series of exposés published by The Intercept revealed a sprawling legal conspiracy, including the US government’s involvement in Lava Jato, and helped prove that the case against Lula was politically motivated. Last month, Brazil’s Supreme Court found that the judge who presided over the corruption cases was biased.
“Lava Jato was used, quite blatantly, to advance a rightwing political agenda and ended up deeply damaging Brazil’s democracy,” Main continued. “By jailing Brazil’s most popular politician on spurious charges and forcing his removal from the ballot in the 2018 elections, Lava Jato’s operators helped ensure the election of Jair Bolsonaro, a dangerous, far right demagogue who frequently praises the country’s past military dictatorship. Lava Jato is widely discredited today but many Brazilians still have questions about what role the US may have played in supporting its biased prosecutors, particularly during their notorious judicial persecution of Lula.”
In spite of this organized opposition, Lula remains immensely popular, largely because his administration’s policies helped lift millions out of poverty and sparked a period of extraordinary economic growth. Though he hasn’t yet announced whether he will run for president again in 2022, he’s widely expected to, and early polls suggest he would easily beat Bolsonaro in a run-off contest.
“In addition to the questions we raised in our August 2019 letter,” the House Democrats wrote, “we are particularly concerned that the income produced from the enforcement of important U.S. legislation dedicated to fighting corruption, could have ended up going to ends not entirely consistent with democracy, rule of law, equal justice under the law, and due process—not to mention Brazilian legal and constitutional requirements.”
The letter was signed by Representatives Susan Wild of Pennsylvania, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Chuy García of Illinois, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, Raul Grijalva of Arizona, Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, and Jared Huffman of California, among others. Organizations like the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the United Auto Workers, and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union also endorsed the letter.