Brazil's ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's chief of staff masterminded a vote-buying scheme by the ruling Workers Party in Brazil's Congress, a Supreme Court justice said Wednesday, in the biggest corruption scandal in the country in 20 years.
Former chief of staff, José Dirceu, is among 37 former ministers, lawmakers, businessmen and bankers on trial before the Supreme Court over the scheme known as "mensalão" (big monthly allowance) that ran from 2002 to 2005 during Lula's first term.
Charges against the accused range from embezzlement and money laundering to corruption and fraud. Those found guilty face up to 45 years in prison. The scandal nearly cost Lula his re-election in 2006. But the 66-year-old founder and leader of the leftist Workers Party was cleared.
Supreme Court justice Joaquim Barbosa, quoted by local media, said during the high-profile bribery trial that evidence showed Dirceu "masterminded the operations" of a former Workers Party treasurer and a businessman.
Barbosa said Dirceu, the ex-treasurer and a former ruling party president distributed money to lawmakers to "illegally secure the support of other political parties to form a ruling government coalition".
Dirceu, regarded as Lula's right-hand man, was forced to resign in 2005 when the graft scandal came to light. But he has always denied paying bribes to lawmakers. Prosecutors allege the bribe money was skimmed from the advertising budgets of state-owned companies through a company owned by Fernandes Valério.
On Monday the 11-member Supreme Court confirmed the existence of the vote-buying scheme from 2003 to 2005 and convicted 12 of 13 defendants linked to four parties in Lula's government coalition at the time. None of the accused has been arrested, and none of them are in court.
Since the trial opened in early August, 22 of the defendants have been found guilty. But the sentences will not be announced until the end of the trial several weeks from now.
Lula who is recovering from throat cancer has previously insisted he was betrayed and offered public apologies on behalf of his party.
Last week he accused the opposition of trying to make political hay out of the scandal ahead of Sunday's municipal elections.
This is Brazil's highest-profile corruption scandal since president Fernando Collor de Mello resigned in 1992 after serving half of his four-year term in office. A Senate trial found him guilty of corruption and barred him from public office for eight years. However, he is now again in the Senate as an elected lawmaker.