RIO DE JANEIRO — Once a federal judge dreaded by Brazil’s politicians, Justice Minister Sergio Moro is suffering at the hands of some of the very people he used to investigate.
Since Moro joined the far-right administration of President Jair Bolsonaro in January, his authority has been repeatedly eroded by politicians, including his boss, regardless of the justice minister’s still high popularity on the streets.
Moro’s latest loss came Tuesday night when Brazil’s Congress trimmed his powers over a financial oversight body, the Council for Financial Activities Control. The body is an important tool that flags suspicious financial operations in Brazil’s banking system.
In a setback for Bolsonaro, who has struggled in Congress himself, the Senate approved a measure that reversed the president’s recent effort to move the council from the Economy Ministry to Moro’s department as part of an anti-graft drive.
Despite his veto power over Congress’ action, the president has said he won’t use it, because it could create problems for other reshuffles his administration is trying to undertake.
Moro won widespread popularity by leading the “Car Wash” investigation that resulted in dozens of top businessmen and politicians being jailed for corruption. He gave that role up at the end of last year to take the justice post.
His troubles began as soon as he met with Bolsonaro in Rio de Janeiro shortly after October’s elections. Although Moro’s fans hailed him as a hero for taking the justice job in hopes of enacting the same kind of anti-corruption crusading as a Cabinet minister, detractors argued it amounted to a payoff for sentencing former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in a corruption and money laundering case.
Da Silva had led opinion polls on the presidential election until he was jailed, which ultimately made it impossible for him to run.
“Moro has always defended a national policy to fight corruption, since his days as a judge,” said Christianne Machiavelli, a former press officer and confidant of Moro’s at the federal court in the city of Curitiba, where he sat.
“When you take a role in the executive, everything changes because you need to negotiate with the legislative, which isn’t always aligned with the expectations of the government,” she told The Associated Press.
Some of the difficulties Moro faces were imposed by his boss, not by legislators, though.
In February, Moro tried to appoint a well-known sociologist to a minor deputy position in a government council, but he was blocked by Bolsonaro because of her anti-gun positions. News later emerged that several of Moro’s recommendations for appointments to courts had been ignored by the president.
Moro was also embarrassed by Bolsonaro’s recent comments that the judge had accepted the post of justice minister on the promise that he would later be named to the Supreme Federal Tribunal, the country’s highest court. Moro said he was honoured but that no such agreement was made.
Moro has also repeatedly declined to respond to reporters’ questions about investigations of suspicious payments to Sen. Flavio Bolsonaro, one of the president’s sons.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, have now scuttled the oversight body change, and they previously blocked Moro’s anti-crime bill, crafted to be his main job in government. Speaker Rodrigo Maia made it clear it is not a priority for the year.
Despite the setbacks, Moro remains popular.
On Sunday, when tens of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets to defend Bolsonaro after recent protests against him, many demonstrators also displayed banners defending Moro. In the capital of Brasilia, a giant Superman doll was decorated with the face of the justice minister and people wore shirts reading “In Moro we trust.”
Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo, believes part of Moro’s problems comes from the fact he splits the stage with Bolsonaro.
Like many observers, Melo thinks the justice minister could be eyeing a presidential run in 2022, which stops him from leaving the job despite the current issues.
“It is clear that Sunday’s protests brought not only pro-gun and anti-establishment Bolsonaro supporters, but also radical admirers of the ‘Car Wash’ operation,” Melo said. “It is hard to say the protests would have as many without Moro as a minister.”
Brazil’s justice minister has kept mostly silent about the setbacks but admitted Tuesday after a lecture in Lisbon that all he could do if is to have “patience.”
“We will find another way to work,” he said.
Associated Press writer Peter Prengaman reported this story in Rio de Janeiro and AP writer Mauricio Savarese reported from Madrid.