Federal prosecutors have charged former Brazilian president and potential 2018 presidential contender Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva with being the “boss” of a multi-million-dollar corruption scheme operating out of state-run oil corporation Petrobras.
In response, Lula has denied the charges in a tearful press conference in which he defied prosecutors to prove his guilt.
“Prove it and I will go on foot [to the police] to go get arrested,” Lula said Thursday.
“I am speaking as an outraged citizen. I have a known public history. Only Jesus Christ can beat me in Brazil,” he claimed, asserting the case against him was “because of the good things I did.”
“I am proud to have created the most important leftist party in Latin America, and having created the party when many people thought it impossible to create,” he asserted. His attorney has made the same argument, asserting that Lula’s “only crime is being democratically elected twice.”
Lula founded Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT), the far-left party of recently-impeached president Dilma Rousseff. Rousseff served as Lula’s Minister of Energy while the Petrobras scheme, dubbed “Operation Car Wash” by prosecutors, was ongoing.
Prosecutors suggest that dozens of public officials were profiting off of Petrobras projects by overcharging for them and pocketing the change.
While a number of politicians have been arrested or implicated in the scheme, Wednesday was the first time that any investigator had accused Lula of not only being aware of the scam but serving as the “boss” of the corruption operation.
“He was the conductor of this criminal orchestra,” prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol said Wednesday, according to Reuters. “The Petrobras graft scheme aimed at keeping the Workers Party in power by criminal means.”
Dallagnol’s team has estimated the amount Lula and his wife profited off the scheme to be upwards of one million dollars — nearly four million Brazilian reais.
Because of the pervasive nature of the corruption probe, many had suspected that the president had to know that it was occurring for it to continue. That same logic applied to Rousseff as Minister of Energy, though her impeachment and removal were related to other fiscal improprieties unrelated to Petrobras. The impeachment movement took off in March and gathered steam after prosecutors detained Lula for questioning in relation to a lavish beachfront property investigators found tied to the scheme.
Lula denied any involvement with the scheme at the time, but the detention appeared to alarm the PT, and Rousseff soon made the announcement that she would appoint Lula her chief of staff. Chief of staff is a cabinet position granted executive immunity, essentially freezing the investigation and preventing arrest.
A court ultimately ruled that granting him the position would be an obstruction of justice, though Rousseff’s impeachment halted the process ultimately as current president Michel Temer took over.
Causing even more scandal, Brazilian federal judge Sergio Moro, whose public profile rose as he led the investigation into the Petrobras scheme, released a government wiretap of a conversation between Rousseff and Lula in which the former promised to appoint him to a position with immunity if it looked like investigators were getting too close to arresting him. Both Rousseff and Lula condemned the publication of the conversation, though public opinion turned sharply against Rousseff following the revelation.
Lula is not currently under arrest, though that may change as prosecutors reveal evidence against him. Lula has previously mentioned his desire to run for president once again in 2018, an effort that may no longer be possible if sufficient evidence surfaces against him for police to act and detain him.