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A justice on Brazil's high court is threatening anticorruption efforts, advocates say

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A justice on Brazil's high court is under fire. Advocates say his recent rulings are threatening anti-corruption efforts. He threw out years of evidence and suspended billions of dollars in fines in Brazil's most significant corruption cases of the last decade. The justice rejects accusations of abuse of power. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The so-called Car Wash investigation put Brazil on the map for fighting corruption. The vast probe uncovered a wide pay-for-play network among some of Brazil's most prominent politicians, business leaders and the construction giant Odebrecht.

BRUNO BRANDAO: We are talking about the biggest corruption probe in the history of the world.

KAHN: Bruno Brandao, head of Transparency International Brazil, says the Car Wash investigation also aided anti-corruption efforts in 12 countries, where leaders there were also implicated in the scheme. Billions of dollars and fines were levied, and at least 165 people were sentenced to prison. It even ensnared current President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who spent nearly two years in prison before his case was annulled.

BRANDAO: For the first time, we saw the historical impunity being challenged here in Brazil and in Latin America.

KAHN: But recent decisions, including those made by a lone supreme court justice, has raised concerns about Brazil's commitment to cut corruption.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: News that supreme court justice Dias Toffoli suspended billions of dollars of fines grabbed headlines. And last year Toffoli threw out huge amounts of evidence gathered in the Car Wash cases. Transparency International cited those rulings when it downgraded Brazil's anti-corruption rating. In response this week, Justice Toffoli launched an investigation into Transparency International's financing.

ROBERTO LIVIANU: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: No one is above criticism, says Roberto Livianu, a public prosecutor in Sao Paulo. And while the Car Wash investigation had major flaws, he says annulling such landmark rulings and slashing fines is troublesome.

LIVIANU: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: This reinforces the perception that the fight against corruption in Brazil is moving in the wrong direction, he says. Friday, Justice Toffoli clarified his decision, which preserved most of the fines, saying his actions were misinterpreted. But advocates warn that supreme court justices in Brazil's system today still wield too much power. Matthew Taylor is a politics professor at American University.

MATTHEW TAYLOR: Why would a prosecutor or a police officer actually spend the time to investigate a corporation, knowing that the likelihood that all of that time and all of that effort is going to be overturned at the first appeal to the high court?

KAHN: The attorney general's office could appeal Justice Toffoli's decision and ask a full plenary of the supreme court to weigh in. This week the attorney general did just that in another of Toffoli's controversial rulings. He had suspended a $2 billion fine against a Brazilian investment firm that owns the world's largest meatpacker. Toffoli's wife is a lawyer for the wealthy brothers who own that company. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.