Members of the Lava Jato task force mobilized to expose confidential information about corruption in Venezuela at the suggestion of then-federal judge Sergio Moro in August 2017, according to private messages exchanged by prosecutors at the time.
The messages, sent by an anonymous source to The Intercept Brasil and analyzed by Folha and the website, show that the initiative's main objective was to send a political message to dictator Nicolás Maduro's hardening regime —even if the action did not have legal effects.
The Attorney General's Office and the Curitiba task force spent months working on the project, exchanging information with prosecutors prosecuted by Maduro and scouring accounts used by Odebrecht to pay bribes to Venezuelan officials in Switzerland.
Prosecutors began discussing the matter on the afternoon of August 5, 2017, after Moro wrote to the head of the Curitiba task force, Deltan Dallagnol, in the Telegram message app.
"Maybe it's time to make public the accusations against Odebrecht and its kickbacks in Venezuela," the judge said. "Is it here or at the Attorney General's office?"
In 2016, when Odebrecht decided to collaborate with Lava Jato, it acknowledged paying bribes to do business in 11 countries beyond Brazil, including Venezuela. However, the Supreme Court kept the information provided by the company and its executives confidential.
The agreement struck by Odebrecht, and signed by Brazilian authorities, the United States and Switzerland, states that the information can only be shared with researchers from other countries if they guarantee that they will not take action against the company and the executives who signed the agreement.
Deltan told Moro that prosecutors would try to find a way around the agreement and announced the intent to file a lawsuit for international money laundering. "There will be criticism and a price, but it is worth paying to expose and help the Venezuelans," the prosecutor said.
Moro responded that he was more concerned with the disclosure of Odebrecht's information than with the possibility of a lawsuit.
"I initially thought of making it public," he wrote to Deltan. "On the charges, you have to study the feasibility."
The prosecutor then described to Moro the options of the task force.
"You can not make it public simply because it would violate the agreement. But you can send spontaneous information [to Venezuela] and then it's likely that somewhere along the way someone can make it public," he said. "At the same time, we will assess whether we can file a lawsuit."
The task force members discussed the subject intensively in the following days. Not only was the Odebrecht information confidential, but there were doubts about the legal feasibility of a case involving foreign authorities and questions about where it should be processed.
Group members expressed concerns about the risks.
"You see that a civil war is possible there and that our action can lead to more social upheaval and more deaths," wrote Paulo Galvão. "Imagine if we argue and the crazy man orders to arrest all the Brazilians in the Venezuelan territory," Athayde Ribeiro Costa said.
The messages obtained by Intercept suggest that Deltan considered his colleagues' fears exaggerated. "Attorney General, regarding risk, it's something that Venezuelan citizens must ponder," he wrote in response to Galvão's message. "They have the right to revolt."
For Deltan, the political objective justified the means. "I do not see it as an effective matter, but symbolic," he told his colleagues. "The purpose of prioritizing [the case] would be to contribute to a people's struggle against injustice by revealing facts and showing that if there is no accountability, there is because there is repression."
The prosecutor made it clear that Moro was with them and that his support was essential to the project. "Russo says that we must study its feasibility. So that means he will consider it," Deltan said on Telegram, referring to Moro by his adopted nickname.
But prosecutors found it difficult to go ahead with the idea and were sidetracked when they could no longer rely on Moro, who left the judiciary last year to become the Minister of Justice Ministry under Jair Bolsonaro.
One of the obstacles that the Lava Jato team encountered was the absence of aligned interlocutors in Venezuela. With the hardening of Maduro's regime, Attorney General Luísa Ortega Diaz was dismissed, and her successor was seen with suspicion by the Brazilians.
Accused of leading an extortion scheme with her husband, the prosecutor left Venezuela after her dismissal and sought refuge in Colombia. She said Maduro persecuted her because she was investigating Odebrecht's relations with him.
A few days after her exile, Ortega traveled to Brazil to get in contact with the Attorney General's Office, to exchange information and, according to the messages obtained by Intercept, to find ways to cooperate with the Lava Jato team even after her dismissal.
"We witnessed an institutional rape of the Venezuelan Public Prosecutor's Office," said Attorney General Rodrigo Janot, when he received her in Brasilia. "Without independence, the prosecutor's office of our neighbor to the north is no longer able to ... conduct criminal investigations or act in court with neutrality."
According to the messages examined by Folha and The Intercept, prosecutor Vladimir Aras, who headed the International Cooperation Secretariat of the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office, asked for the prosecutors' help to receive two Venezuelan prosecutors who secretly came to Brazil to work with them on the case.
Two members of the Curitiba task force offered to house the foreign colleagues in their homes for a few days. Deltan even sought help from Transparency International to finance the couple's stay in Brazil.
The messages obtained by The Intercept also suggest that the prosecutors saw Ortega's stay in Brazil as an opportunity to leak information about Odebrecht's work in Venezuela.
"If you wanted to leak things about Venezuela, now is the moment. The woman is in Brazil," attorney Paulo Galvão wrote when Ortega's arrival in Brasilia was reported. His colleagues reacted with sarcasm as if it were a joke, but a leak did actually occur.
In October, a few weeks after the two Venezuelan prosecutors visited Curitiba, Ortega published on her website two videos with excerpts from statements by former Odebrecht director Euzenando Azevedo about contributions made to Maduro's electoral campaigns.
The company's lawyers questioned the task force after the leak, and the group discussed the episode in Telegram. Attorney Paulo Galvão suggested that Vladimir Aras or Orlando Martello could have been responsible. "We did not pass anything on ..." Galvão wrote to his colleagues. "Maybe it could have been Vlad. Or Orlando, who is quiet." The two were participants in the message group, but they were silent.
Odebrecht asked Minister Edson Fachin, Lava Jato's rapporteur at the STF, to open an investigation into the leak, but he just asked the prosecutor for clarification. A month ago, Attorney General Raquel Dodge reported that there is a confidential investigation in the lower court in Brasilia.
Back when Ortega had access to Euzenando's testimony, Venezuela had signed an agreement with Brazil to obtain information on the plea bargain of former PT marketing person João Santana.
But the agreement did not provide access to Odebrecht's information, the Attorney General's Office told Folha. The messages examined by Folha and The Intercept show that after talking with Ortega, Brazilian prosecutors sought information on accounts that Euzenando and Odebrecht would have used to move the equivalent of US $48 million to Switzerland with the help of a Venezuelan lawyer, between 2008 and 2014.
The messages show that the information from Switzerland made the Lava Jato task force members suspicious of Euzenando. He admitted to a smaller volume of resources than the accounts indicated. But this new information provided the foundation for a lawsuit that the prosecutors had started planning in 2017.
Concerned about the worsening political situation in Venezuela, Transparency International publicly defended filing a lawsuit against the authorities of Venezuela in Brazil and discussed the matter with former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (PSDB) during an event held at his foundation.
"FHC came to talk to me at the end and said that's a good idea," said Bruno Brandão, executive director of Transparency International in Brazil, in a message sent to Deltan by Telegram in October 2017.
The messages obtained by The Intercept indicate, however, that the Lava Jato team encountered resistance from the Supreme Court and the Federal Court of Paraná.
According to one of the messages, Judge Luiz Antônio Bonat, who replaced Moro in the Lava Jato's proceedings in Curitiba, told prosecutors in April of this year that the Venezuelan case is not within his jurisdiction because there is no connection to corruption at Petrobras.
Minister and task force say they do not recognize the messages as authentic
Justice Minister Sergio Moro declined to comment on the messages in which he discussed with Attorney Deltan Dallagnol an initiative to make public Odebrecht's information about Venezuela in 2017.
He has reaffirmed his position in recent weeks, casting doubt on the authenticity of the messages obtained by The Intercept Brazil website and suggesting that they may have been tampered with.
"The Minister of Justice and Public Security does not recognize the authenticity of alleged messages obtained by criminal means and that may have been totally or partially tampered with," his press office said.
"Even if the alleged messages quoted in the report were authentic, they would not reveal any illegality or unethical conduct, only repeated violation of the privacy of law enforcement officials with the intent to overturn criminal convictions and prevent further investigations."
Lava Jato's task force in Curitiba followed the same line. "The material presented by the report does not verify the context and veracity of the messages," said his adviser.
"Operation Lava Jato has been sustained by robust evidence and consistent denunciations, already analyzed by various courts," he added. "The members of the task force guide their professional and personal actions through ethics and legality."
The Attorney General's Office stated that it would not express its views on the matter, and Odebrecht will not as well. Lawyer Carla Domenico declined to comment on the quotes of the former Odebrecht director Euzenando Azevedo, who cooperates with Lava Jato.
Transparency International said it would defend measures to improve international legal cooperation and actions of Brazilian institutions to prosecute foreign officials involved in corruption schemes such as those investigated by Lava Jato.
"In addition to consolidating its international leadership in addressing corruption, [Brazil] can establish important jurisprudence against impunity in institutionally fragile nations, including dictatorships that systematically use corruption to keep them in power," the organization said.
"The case of Venezuela is perhaps one of the most serious in the international context of Lava Jato, because the reaction of the local government against the prosecutors responsible for the investigations of the crimes revealed by the Brazilians was so extreme that it resulted in the exile of these authorities, with their lives and of their threatened relatives," he added.
Former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso said he did not remember the conversation in which he talked about Venezuela with the Executive Director of Transparency International, Bruno Brandão, according to the messages obtained by Intercept.
Translated by Kiratiana Freelon