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Ex-Odebrecht CEO, symbol of Brazil graft probe, leaves jail

December 19, 2017

In this March 26, 2017 file photo, people march against corruption and in support of the Car Wash investigation on Copacabana beach, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Marcelo Odebrecht, one of the most prominent people convicted in Latin America's largest corruption scandal left prison Tuesday, Dec. 19, for house arrest after serving two-and-a-half years behind bars at a time when many Brazilians are becoming disillusioned with the graft investigation once hailed as a political game-changer. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo, File)

SAO PAULO (AP) — One of the most prominent people convicted in Latin America’s largest corruption scandal left prison Tuesday for house arrest after serving two-and-a-half years behind bars at a time when many Brazilians are becoming disillusioned with the graft investigation once hailed as a political game-changer.

Marcelo Odebrecht’s release came a day after Brazil’s top court halted investigations into several lawmakers, underscoring the limitations of the “Car Wash” investigation that uncovered nearly institutionalized corruption involving senior politicians in several countries and several major Brazilian companies.

Odebrecht, who was CEO of his family’s company of the same name, cooperated with prosecutors and testified that executives routinely paid bribes and made illegal campaign contributions to politicians in exchange for favors. He was originally sentenced to 19 years in prison, but, once he began cooperating, that penalty was reduced to 10, with the agreement that the majority of it would be served under house arrest.

Odebrecht’s conviction and jailing were seen as a major victory for Car Wash prosecutors. The testimony of Odebrecht and other executives revealed that, for years, the company had essentially captured the Brazilian state, paying bribes and kickbacks to whoever was in power, whoever might be able to do a favor here, award a contract there.

The corruption was so organized — and endemic — that it had its own department at Odebrecht, blandly named the Division of Structured Operations.

On Tuesday, Odebrecht left prison and went to the federal court in the southern state of Parana, where an electronic bracelet was attached, the court said. Neither the court nor his representatives would say where he was headed next, but local media have reported he will serve out his term in his home in an upscale neighborhood of Sao Paulo.

“The main objective of this new phase of his life is, I repeat, to return to the family fold, which is very dear to him, and to be effective in his collaboration” with prosecutors, Nabor Bulhoes, a lawyer for Odebrecht told reporters outside the court. “Right now, he has no other plan and no other goal.”

While Odebrecht’s release was expected, it underscored the inequalities in Brazil’s criminal justice system, in which corruption and white collar crimes generally receive little jail time.

“It’s terrible for the image of Brazil,” said Celcino Rodrigues Junior, a 26-year-old law student in Sao Paulo, referring to Odebrecht’s release. “It’s favorable to him because he will be in a mansion, he will be in total comfort.”

Revealing the extent of corruption in Brazil was one of Car Wash’s great achievements. The other was managing to put some of its masterminds, Odebrecht among them, in jail.

But the investigation has slowed in recent months, and there have been accusations that President Michel Temer and other senior politicians are trying to hinder it. Some fear the new chief of the federal police will be less aggressive in investigating corruption, and others bemoaned the closure earlier this year of the task force dedicated to the probe. Temer has always maintained that he supports the investigation.

Despite its success in sending several businessmen to jail, the Car Wash operation has also struggled to put senior politicians behind bars. That’s at least partially because sitting politicians have the right to be tried in the Supreme Court, where justice is slow and often deferential.

On Monday, a Supreme Court panel voted 2-1 to stop Car Wash investigations against four members of Congress. The decision effectively shields them from investigation while they remain in office.

Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes also ordered house arrest instead of jail for Adriana Anselmo, wife of former Rio de Janeiro Gov. Sergio Cabral. Cabral has been convicted of corruption and is in prison, while his wife has been in jail accused of several crimes.

“Brazilians, as a whole, are exhausted by this marathon of scandal, and it’s only natural that they would be disappointed by and exhausted by the absence of any real accountability,” said Matthew Taylor, an associate professor at the School of International Service at American University in Washington.

Even though the operation, known as Lava Jato” in Portugese, hasn’t always lived up to Brazil’s highest hopes, Taylor says it has made significant progress.

“The fact that Odebrecht went to jail at all is a paradigm-shifting event in Brazilian history,” he said. “Lava Jato has moved the needle.”

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Sarah DiLorenzo on Twitter: twitter.com/sdilorenzo

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