The parting shots of Brazil’s chief prosecutor

LIKE a sheriff in one last gunfight, Rodrigo Janot hoped to end his career in a blaze of glory. On September 14th, three days before the end of his term as Brazil’s chief prosecutor, he accused the country’s president, Michel Temer, of obstructing justice and of racketeering. In a 245-page document, Mr Janot alleges that Mr Temer was the ringleader of a “mega-gang” made up of politicians from his Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB), the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) and others. It extracted bribes worth at least 587m reais ($188m) from companies in return for public contracts and favours. Mr Temer also allegedly paid to silence potential witnesses.

This is the second volley Mr Janot has fired at the president. In June he accused Mr Temer of negotiating bribes and obstructing justice. The charge was based on testimony from Joesley and Wesley Batista and on tapes recorded by Joesley Batista. Their family controls JBS, the world’s largest meat producer. Brazil’s congress refused to forward those accusations to the supreme court, the only one that can try the president. It is unlikely to vote differently on the second set of charges. Mr Temer became president in August 2016, when his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff of the PT, was impeached on unrelated charges. Most analysts expect him to remain in office until the end of his term in December 2018.

Mr Janot’s parting shots leave Brazil in an uncertain state. The allegations against Mr Temer are grave, but to some non-partisan observers they do not look rock-solid. The prosecutor has deepened suspicions about the president’s conduct while leaving room for doubt. People who feel threatened by the broader Lava Jato (Car Wash) corruption probes are seizing on what they claim are weaknesses in Mr Janot’s case to call into question the entire process. Now Brazilians wonder whether Mr Janot’s successor, Raquel Dodge (pronounced “dodgy” in Brazil), will pursue it with the same zeal. The anti-corruption crusade is thus at a turning point.

Lava Jato began in 2014 by uncovering a bribery network made up of executives from Petrobras, the state-controlled oil company; the biggest construction companies; and scores of officials and politicians. It has been an immensely successful assault on Brazil’s culture of impunity. So far, 107 people have been convicted of 165 crimes and sentenced to a total of 1,634 years in prison. Among the most famous felons are Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a popular former president from the PT, Eduardo Cunha, the former PMDB speaker of the lower house of congress, and Marcelo Odebrecht, once head of the country’s biggest construction firm. Brazilians applaud the house-cleaning: 85% want it to continue, according to a recent poll. Sérgio Moro, the judge who handles investigations and trials of most suspects who are not sitting politicians, is a national hero.

Most Lava Jato prosecutions are based on careful detective work. Investigators traced Mr Cunha’s Swiss bank accounts. Mr Moro, who convicted Lula, had a document attesting to the acquisition of an apartment by his wife, who has since died. (Lula is appealing; his supporters say he is the victim of a witch hunt.)

Mr Janot’s salvoes against the president have been controversial. His deal with the Batista brothers, who admitted to paying $185m in bribes to hundreds of politicians, looked generous. They were given immunity from prosecution in exchange for confessions that implicated Mr Temer. Embarrassingly, Mr Janot’s office withdrew the brothers’ immunity after it became known that they had not made full confessions. Their testimony incriminating Mr Temer is still valid, Mr Janot insists.

The latest set of charges relies heavily on plea-bargain testimony of people who had dealings with the mega-gang. Critics say it offers too little corroborating evidence against Mr Temer in the form of intercepted communications or bank records. Plea-bargain testimony should open lines of inquiry, not provide the main evidence for their conclusions, they contend.

Mr Janot’s foes have pounced. Mr Temer accuses him of bearing a grudge against him and calls the latest allegations “fantastical”. Gilmar Mendes, a supreme-court justice friendly to Mr Temer, calls Mr Janot “the most incompetent” chief prosecutor in history. Some people hope to capitalise on such criticisms to undermine the broader Lava Jato process.

The legislature, more than half of whose 513 members are under investigation, is looking for ways to tame it. A cross-party committee led by an ally of Mr Temer is considering measures to limit the use of plea bargaining, for example by setting a minimum jail sentence for people who admit guilt in exchange for testimony against others. Mr Mendes also favours restricting the use of plea bargaining. “The ethos of a country can’t be the fight against corruption,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

A let-up in that fight would be politically toxic. Brazilians’ support for democracy over other forms of government dropped to a third last year from more than half in 2015, according to a poll. A few want a return to military rule. This month a serving general, Antonio Hamilton Mourão, promised a “military intervention” should the judiciary fail to “solve the political problem”. The army’s commander contradicted him, but he has not been disciplined.

Ms Dodge must reassure Brazilians that the Lava Jato inquiries, including into Mr Temer’s activities, will continue unimpeded. Mr Temer chose her from a shortlist over a candidate who is more popular with prosecutors. That prompted speculation that she might go easy on him. At her swearing-in on September 18th she tried to seem less confrontational than Mr Janot. She promised to fight crimes against the environment and indigenous people as well as corruption, and called for “harmony between institutions”.

But Ms Dodge, unlike Mr Janot, is a specialist in criminal law. She has reportedly appointed seasoned investigators to the Lava Jato team of the prosecutor’s office. “There is nothing in her CV to suggest she is interested in putting the brakes on Lava Jato,” says Thomaz Favaro of Control Risks, a consultancy. The new prosecutor, Brazilians hope, will turn out to be a sharpshooter rather than a gunslinger.