During his pursuit of Brazil’s largest-ever corruption case, federal judge Sérgio Moro has sought inspiration in an unlikely figure: Theodore Roosevelt.
“There can be no crime more serious than bribery,” the 26th U.S. president declared in a 1903 speech to Congress. Bribe-givers, Roosevelt charged, are “as wicked as the murderer, for the murderer may only take one life against the law.”
A video of Moro reading Roosevelt’s speech aloud in Portuguese in October 2016 has been viewed more than 2 million times on Facebook. That’s testimony to his enduring celebrity as the judge overseeing the prosecution of the “Car Wash” corruption scandal, which involved more than $5 billion in bribes at Brazil’s state-run oil company and elsewhere, landed dozens of tycoons and politicians in jail, and contributed to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016. (“Car Wash” refers to a gas station where investigators first detected money laundering, setting the case in motion.)
But the video also highlights how the 45-year-old Moro, in 2017, has made “Car Wash” a central part of his quest to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, similar to what Roosevelt undertook against American “robber barons” and bribe-givers a century ago.
“We are living in an era of a certain disappointment with democracy. It is our duty to not only defend democracy but also work to improve it,” Moro says. “Corruption undermines confidence. Roosevelt understood this … and that’s a spirit we need to replicate today in our civil society and government and not just in Brazil.”
Car Wash, he says, isn’t the work of particularly gifted jurists — though he has steered the case through an army of corporate lawyers and countless procedural minefields with considerable skill — but rather is the fruit of Brazil’s 1988 Constitution. That granted prosecutors wide autonomy to pursue cases, and more recent reforms allowed prosecutors to strike plea bargains with suspects.
Though his anti-corruption push has bathed him in the limelight, and polls say he could win a presidential election in 2018, Moro has categorically rejected requests to start his own political career.
That has helped blunt criticism by Moro’s opponents that he is a partisan opportunist who has unfairly singled out leftist politicians for prosecution. In truth, Moro spent most of his career on relatively unglamorous cases; he was popularly known as “the old folks’ judge” for favoring seniors in disputes with Brazil’s pensions agency. Even as “Car Wash” has morphed into an international case, triggering investigations from Peru to Mexico, Moro has continued to eat dinner at his favorite pizza place in Curitiba, where customers greet him with a standing ovation.
Soft-spoken, reserved, and measured in his words, Moro has sometimes disappointed fans looking for fiery denunciations of those he has imprisoned.
But his even temperament has been a critical asset lately as the investigation has run into obstacles. Politicians in Brasília, including Rousseff’s presidential successor Michel Temer, have taken recent steps that prosecutors fear could undermine the probe, such as appointing their political allies to the Supreme Court and Federal Police. And some lawmakers, accusing Moro of abusing plea-bargain testimony and preventive detention to convince potential witnesses to talk, have introduced new bills that would roll back both practices.
Where large protests in favor of Car Wash once deterred politicians from interfering with the probe, lately, these demonstrations have shrunk in size, suggesting public fatigue with the case. The constant flow of scandals seems to be souring Brazilians not just on their politicians but on their political system altogether. Only 13 percent of Brazilians said in a recent poll that they were “satisfied” with their democracy — the lowest rate in Latin America.
But Moro prefers taking the long view.
“It’s said that Car Wash is at risk,” he told a conference in October. “But there are already cases that have been sentenced, people held responsible. There’s already a palpable result. The big question is: How do we go forward?”
Brian Winter is the editor in chief of Americas Quarterly and the vice president for policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas.
Moro was inspired by the "Clean Hands" corruption purge in Italy in the 1990s.