World

AP Explains: Car Wash probe upending Brazilian politics

Brazilian President Michel Temer has been fighting to save his job since last week's release of a recording that appeared to capture him endorsing hush money for an ex-lawmaker now serving a 15-year prison sentence. The allegation is the latest fallout from a mammoth investigation into billions of dollars in kickbacks and illegal campaign financing.

HOW DID IT START?

Launched in March 2014, the "Car Wash" probe began as an investigation into money laundering in the southwestern state of Parana. Investigators realized it was much bigger than just a few bad actors when they discovered that convicted money launderer Alberto Youssef had bought a Range Rover for Paulo Roberto Costa, a former executive at Petrobras, the state oil company. Yousseff and Costa would reach plea bargains that provided a window into the immensity of the graft.

HOW DID THE SCHEME WORK?

Executives of major construction companies such as Odebrecht, OAS and Andrade Gutierrez effectively formed a cartel that decided which firms would be awarded Petrobras contracts, often worth billions of dollars, and how inflated they would be. The padded prices were used to pay off scores of politicians and executives.

WHO HAS BEEN CAUGHT?

The dozens of top businessmen and politicians who have been convicted or are being investigated is a who's who of Brazil's elite. Among them are former Odebrecht CEO Marcelo Odebrecht and ex-House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, both serving long prison sentences. Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is facing charges in several related cases.

HOW IS TEMER CONNECTED?

Joesley Batista, chairman of meat-packing company JBS, was being investigated since last year for allegedly bribing Cunha. During a meeting with Temer, Batista told Temer about the bribing and Temer told him to keep it up, according to the recording. The allegations against Temer go beyond the audio. He has been accused in plea bargains by Odebrecht executives of taking bribes and illegal campaign financing. Attorney General Rodrigo Janot is also investigating Temer for allegedly trying to impede Car Wash investigations through changes in laws and influencing police investigations.

CONNECTIONS OUTSIDE BRAZIL?

The initial investigation has mushroomed into related probes across Brazil and abroad because companies like Odebrecht operated across Latin America. Fallout from the probe is starting to affect several nations, including Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Argentina and the Dominican Republic.

WHY NOW?

Graft has long been part of doing business in Brazil, and historically the elite have operated with impunity. Previous corruption investigations, including into Odebrecht, have ended with prosecution of a few lower-level people. This time it is different, thanks to several factors: a young and crusading group of prosecutors and judges, plea bargains that have helped investigators uncover white-collar crimes normally hard to prove and the practice of keeping defendants in jail while they await trial.

WHAT'S NEXT?

Prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol, coordinator of the Car Wash task force in the state of Parana, told The Associated Press in late January that plea bargains could more than double the size of the investigation. The last few months have made clear that there is no end in sight.

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Follow Peter Prengaman at twitter.com/peterprengaman