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Brazil Congress May Expel Lawmaker

March 3, 1998

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) _ When a 22-story apartment building collapsed in a posh beach district two weeks ago, killing eight residents, the reputation of congressman Sergio Naya crumbled with it.

As owner and engineer of the construction company that built the Palace II, Naya has been accused of shoddy workmanship and using poor-quality materials. Beams had corroded and pillars buckled.

Outrage grew when a national TV news program aired an amateur video that showed Naya admitting he has bought used fixtures for his buildings and passed them off as new.

Today, Naya is held up as a national symbol of abuse and arrogance of power _ and nearly everyone wants a shot at him.

Congress began proceedings Tuesday to expel Naya and suspend his political rights for eight years. Police are investigating him for contraband. The federal tax bureau wants him to pay $13.3 million in fines for tax evasion. The Engineering Council in Rio has revoked his license.

President Fernando Henrique is urging changes to the law protecting legislators from criminal prosecution so Naya can be punished.

Naya’s face stares out from the cover of Veja magazine, the nation’s largest-circulation newsweekly, beside the caption: ``The villain of Rio’s tragedy.″

``Who is Deputy Sergio Naya, who builds low-quality buildings and wants to get the upper hand in everything?″ the magazine asks.

Until now, most Brazilians had no idea who he was. In circles of power, however, Naya was known as a man who parlayed political connections into a personal fortune.

Born in the poor southeastern town of Laranjal, Naya’s rise began in the late 1970s when he became friends with Gen. Golbery do Couto e Silva, the gray eminence of Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship.

He became a partner in, then owner of, the Sersan construction company, and contracts flowed in. In Brasilia, the capital, he built the annex of Congress, as well as hotels and apartments.

Brazilian media reported that his company also is building a complex of four 18-story apartments in Orlando, Fla. Construction of the Sandy Lake Towers reportedly has been slowed by building code violations and accusations of late or insufficient payments to contractors.

First elected to Congress in 1986, he once claimed on the Chamber of Deputies floor that his personal worth was nearly $500 million and included 826 properties in the United States, 5,000 in Sao Paulo state and 3,000 in Spain. A 1994 statement of assets required of all candidates lists assets of about $2.5 million.

Although structural problems led to a December 1996 evacuation of the Palace II, its Feb. 22 collapse shocked Brazilians.

First, the building in Rio’s fashionable Barra da Tijuca neighborhood groaned and shuddered. Firefighters ordered residents out. A few ran back inside to get possessions _ and an entire side of the building gave way. Eight people died.

Brazilians, accustomed to seeing slum dwellers lose everything in a flood or mudslide, were stunned at the middle-class disaster.

At a press conference, Sersan officials blamed residents who were remodeling apartments for the collapse. Furious residents punched and kicked the company representatives, who then fled.

An investigation later showed that the concrete used contained seashells and a high salt content, which corrodes iron in beams.

``It started to collapse when it was built,″ said Jose Chacon, president of the Regional Council of Architecture and Engineering. ``The materials were of dreadful quality.″

Days later, an amateur videotape showed Naya talking to city councilors in his home district, bragging about how he had forged the governor’s signature on a document and passed off old bathroom fixtures as new.

The Chamber of Deputies is expected to use the videotape to expel Naya for lack of decorum.

But the congressman has options. He can resign and avoid losing his political rights, then simply run for office again.

As a sitting congressman, he has immunity from criminal prosecution. If expelled, he could be charged, but if he resigns, the case would fall into a legal gray area.

Brazil’s legal system, with its multiple appeals, could drag the case out until it fades from the headlines, and with his connections, Naya may avoid any serious consequences.

A Rio judge froze his assets last week and former residents, who have been searching the rubble for momentos of their shattered lives, are expected to file a civil suit against him.

``My past is there, and no one can dig that out,″ said resident Juracy Menezes. ``And now I will fight for justice in this country, because so far I haven’t seen any.″