RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazilian political and financial circles were reeling Thursday after the arrests of a high-profile senator from the ruling Workers’ Party, his cabinet chief, and one of the country’s leading bankers after the release of a secret recording of a conspiratorial meeting.
The arrests were the latest developments in the Operation Car Wash scandal — in which billions of dollars in bribes were paid to politicians and high-level executives for contracts with Brazil’s state-run oil company, Petrobras.
The recording captured a conversation in which Delcídio do Amaral, the government’s leader in the Senate, discussed how to subvert the Car Wash investigation, influence Supreme Court judges, and arrange an escape for a jailed former Petrobras executive, Nestor Cerveró, with the use of a private jet flight to Spain.
“It’s a game changer,” said Paulo Baía, a professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Social Sciences at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “He’s not just any senator. He’s the leader of the government in the senate.”
André Esteves, a leading investment banker who was not at the meeting, was also arrested for his alleged role in the plan.
Brazil’s Supreme Court, which had to approve the arrests, said the men wanted to prevent Cerveró from signing a deal to turn state’s evidence. Cerveró, a former director of Petrobras’s international department, is appealing 17 years in jail sentences for his role in the Car Wash scandal. Brazilian media has reported that do Amaral and Esteves could be incriminated by Cerveró.
The recording was made by Cerveró’s son Bernardo, who was at the Nov. 4 meeting in a Brasilia hotel room with his father’s lawyer, Edson Ribeiro, and do Amaral’s cabinet chief, Diogo Ferreira. Do Amaral, Ferreira and Esteves were all arrested Wednesday.
Following the court decision to have do Amaral arrested and held in jail, Brazil’s Senate confirmed his detention in an extraordinary vote. It is the first time a serving senator has been jailed since Brazil returned to democracy in 1985 after two decades of dictatorship.
The arrests increase pressure on embattled President Dilma Rousseff, who has only recently been able to move the political agenda away from calls for her impeachment. Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians protesting corruption have joined demonstrations this year calling for her ouster.
“With this episode, the crisis of the Dilma government and the question of impeachment are back in the foreground,” Baía said.
The arrest of Esteves, chief executive of the Brazilian investment bank BTG Pactual and one of the most powerful financiers in Brazil, also shook financial markets. Esteves is one Brazil’s richest men and has close connections to powerful political leaders.
“The reaction was very negative,” said Mauro Schneider, an economist at Sao Paulo consulting firm MCM Consultores Associados. BTG’s share price plunged 21 percent Wednesday. It announced an interim chief executive and said Esteves was cooperating with the investigation.
Brazil’s Central Bank even issued a “clarification” in which it reassured the market that BTG was not about to fail.
Cerveró’s attempts at negotiating a state’s evidence deal, as many of those accused in the scheme have done, were floundering, Brazilian media reported, because he hadn’t offered enough concrete details.
That apparently led his son, Bernardo, to hold the meeting with do Amaral and the others.
During the meeting, do Amaral cited the names of four Supreme Court judges. Serving politicians can only be tried by the court, which is also Brazil’s highest court of appeal.
“I think we have to focus fire on the Supreme Court,” said do Amaral. Referring to one judge, Gilmar Mendes, he said, “Gilmar oscillates a lot — one minute he’s well, the other he’s bad.”
The Supreme Court said the conspirators planned to pay Cerveró’s family $13,000 a month, with Esteves paying $1 million in fees to his lawyer.
The men discussed a plan in which, with his state’s-evidence deal signed, Cerveró could then cross the border to Paraguay and flee by private jet to Spain where, because he also has Spanish citizenship, he would be safe.
After the extraordinary session that confirmed do Amaral’s arrest, Renan Calheiros, president of the Senate, said it had been one of the most painful days in the assembly’s history.
The pain may not be over. Calheiros and Eduardo Cunha, speaker of the lower house, are both also among dozens of lawmakers being investigated in the scheme.