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‘I Didn’t Enter the Government to Serve a Master.’ Brazil’s Star Justice Minister on His Resignation and Clash With President Bolsonaro

13 minute read

A scowl on Sergio Moro’s face tends to be a bad omen for Brazilian presidents. As the lead judge of Brazil’s landmark “Car Wash” corruption investigation, in 2016 Moro helped unleash a wave of anger at the political class that triggered Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. In 2017, he convicted Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Rousseff’s hugely popular predecessor, of graft. And, last month, he plunged Jair Bolsonaro, the country’s current far-right leader, into a political crisis when he resigned his post of justice minister and accused Bolsonaro of inappropriately meddling in law enforcement. “When you look at it, Moro is arguably the most influential Brazilian of the past decade,” says Gustavo Ribeiro, a political scientist.

But Moro, 47, insists he has never set out to change the course of Brazilian history. “It’s all very circumstantial. Things can end up having big consequences,” he tells TIME over video chat from a grey hotel room in the capital city of Brasilia. He speaks slowly even in his native Portuguese and rarely lets a smile crack through his stony expression. “But I also wouldn’t overstate my influence. Especially now, I’m just an ordinary citizen.”

That understated attitude is typical of Moro. Over the last six years, he’s become one of the most popular politicians in Brazil and early polls indicate he would be Bolsonaro’s main challenger if he ran for president in 2022. But most of his political leanings remain a mystery. He’s transformed the fate of some of Brazil’s biggest and brashest political characters, but he has the persona of a somber bureaucrat. He’s a hero to the right and a boogeyman to much of the left, but his slogan is strikingly apolitical: “Always do the right thing.”

It was that ethos, Moro claims, that forced him to act on the morning of April 24, when he learned that Bolsonaro had fired Mauricio Valeixo, the federal police chief. A few hours later, he called a press conference in which he resigned and accused the president of having fired Valeixo in order to install a lackey who would illegally provide him with confidential reports. Moro later added that Bolsonaro had tried to replace the regional head of police in Rio de Janeiro state, where two of his sons are currently under investigation. Brazil’s attorney general has opened a criminal investigation into Moro’s claims, which could lead to charges of obstruction of justice and abuse of power—and even the president’s impeachment.

Bolsonaro, who last year celebrated Moro as a “national treasure” after he appointed him justice minister, has denied the allegations and referred to Moro as “Judas” for making them. So far, Moro isn’t rising to the bait. ”It wasn’t my intention to damage the government,” he says. “But I wouldn’t feel comfortable with my conscience without explaining why I was leaving.”


People demonstrate in support of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and Justice Minister Sergio Moro in Brasilia, on June 30, 2019.EVARISTO SA/AFP via Getty Images

The son of a Portuguese teacher and a geography professor, Moro and his elder brother grew up in Paraná, a relatively wealthy state with a mild climate in the southwestern corner of Brazil. As an adult, he settled in Curitiba, the state capital of 2 million people. He took the public entrance exam to become a federal judge at just 24. The descendant of Italian immigrants, he developed a fascination with Operation Clean Hands, the corruption probe that rooted out hundreds of dirty politicians in Italy in the 1990s. In 1998 he spent a summer studying money laundering at Harvard Law School. Over the next two decades he worked on a string of corruption cases, from financial crimes to vote-buying in Brasilia, and lectured at universities.

Moro credits his 22 years on the bench as the reason for his reserved persona.”My training has made me very aware of the need to observe certain patterns of conduct,” he says. He is married to lawyer Rosangela Maria Wolff de Quadros Moro and the couple have two young daughters. But he is loath to share more details about their life, responding to a question about where he lives by saying it was “very personal.”

Moro has managed to maintain his privacy even after being thrust into the national spotlight in 2014, when Car Wash landed on his desk. The case started as a small operation looking at money laundering in Curitiba, but when police discovered a link with state-run oil giant Petrobras, it grew to a scale no one had anticipated. Investigators unveiled a vast and intricate network of corruption, involving cash for contracts, that implicated large swaths of Brazil’s business and political elites.

By 2019, $3.4 billion in public funds had been recovered and 445 people indicted, many of them officials from the leftists Workers Party, which had been in power since 2003. Moro became a symbol of the end of an era of impunity in Brazilian politics. As the revelations from the investigation triggered a wave of anti-government protests, His face was plastered on posters, T-shirts and flags, accompanied by the slogan “We are all Moro” or “SuperMoro.”

But Moro’s conduct during the investigation also attracted controversy. In March 2016, he shocked many Brazilians when he sent the audio of tapped phone conversations between Lula and then-president Rousseff to the media. One clip appeared to show that Rousseff had appointed Lula as her chief of staff, allegedly in order to shield him from Car Wash prosecutors, because government ministers can only be tried by the Supreme Court. (Analysts say the audio clip was decisive in building the public outrage that underpinned Congress’ drive to impeach Rousseff four months later, on charges of manipulating government financial data.)

In July 2019, investigative site The Intercept published a trove of messages which they said showed that, as a judge, Moro had inappropriately consulted with federal prosecutors on strategy to take down high profile figures. Some of the messages concerned Lula, convicted by Moro in July 2017 over his receipt of a beachfront apartment in exchange for allocating Petrobras contracts. Ribeiro, who founded political news site The Brazilian Report, says that Car Wash exposed “a kind of duality we have in Brazil: either no wrongdoing is ever punished or we have law enforcement and judges bulldozing due process and bending the rules in order to do the right thing,” he says. “Moro is the poster boy for that phenomenon”.

Moro rejects that idea and denies any wrongdoing. He argues the audio release was vital to the public interest, and that The Intercept’s coverage sensationalized innocent messages. “I have an absolutely clear conscience about what I did during Car Wash. There’s an attempt to characterize everything as political persecution; to cast me as an executioner,” he says, pointing out that Lula has since been convicted of corruption by other judges in other court rooms. “It was never a personal issue with ex-president Lula either. Even though there’s a narrative that he wants to impose.”

Whatever Moro’s intentions were, Car Wash transformed Brazil’s political landscape. By 2017, Brazil ranked worst in the world on the World Bank’s index of public trust in politicians. Public satisfaction with Brazil’s democracy fell to 15%. Perhaps the largest benefactor of that situation was Bolsonaro. After spending two decades as a fringe figure on the far-right of Brazil’s congress, in October 2018 he rode a wave of public anger at the mainstream to be elected president with just over 55% of the vote in a second round run-off. He promised to stamp out the corruption Brazilians now saw as endemic to the country’s large parties.

When Bolsonaro invited Moro to become justice minister soon after his election, Moro says he saw an opportunity to consolidate the achievements of Car Wash and permanently strengthen the rule of law from Brasilia. He cites a backsliding after Italy’s Clean Hands operation, in which corruption networks sprouted up again in Italian politics in the early 2000s. “I wanted to prevent that weakening from happening in Brazil.”

For the left, Moro’s entrance into a government led by a far-right president cast a pall over his impartiality. His conviction of Lula, who would have been the Workers’ Party (PT) presidential candidate, had effectively paved the way for Bolsonaro’s victory. “It’s the Fraud of the century!” tweeted PT President Gleisi Hoffmann. Moro now says he worried about how the decision would be seen. “But also a lot of people told me that they felt more comfortable with me inside the government than outside of it, because inside I could be a potentially moderating influence. So that provided me some comfort.”

If things had turned out differently, and the Workers’ Party had won the election, would Moro have joined their government? “There are some very clear issues. You can only advance in the future if you face up to the mistakes of the past. ” He argues that the PT’s campaign in the presidential election in 2018 did not acknowledge the party’s culpability in the scheme unveiled by Car Wash. “I simply wouldn’t believe that it would be possible [for them to advance the anti-corruption agenda], without recognizing past errors. So then you have to look for a fresh start. There has to be a serious commitment,” he says, and pauses. “Unfortunately, the government that was elected also didn’t have that.”

The explosive allegations that Moro made as he resigned in April were the final straw, he says, in “a whole scenario that has unfolded over the last year […] that showed that this new government was not fulfilling its promises to fight corruption and strengthen institutions.In particular, he cites a lack of presidential support for anti-corruption measures Moro had wanted included in a 2019 crime bill. The law, finally passed in December, strengthened police powers to fight violent crime—measures critics say could worsen Brazil’s problem with police brutality. But lawmakers watered down key sections meant to overhaul campaign finance rules and scrap the immunity that congress members enjoy while in office. Bolsonaro refused to veto all of the changes, Moro says. He also points to recent apparent alliances between the president and politicians who have been accused or convicted of corruption. “All of that began to strain, or drain of meaning, my remaining in the government. I can’t be in the government if I don’t have a serious commitment on corruption and rule of law.” (Bolsonaro denies mentioning the police in the video.)

Moro was in Brasilia to view a two-hour official recording of an April 22 meeting between ministers and Bolsonaro. The video is at the heart of the investigation into Moro’s allegations against the president. Moro claims it contains evidence of the president seeking to meddle in the federal police and says it must be shared with the public. The supreme court will make a decision about its publication on Friday. A partial transcript released by the attorney general’s office includes Bolsonaro saying, “I’m not going to wait for [the federal police] to fuck my family and friends just for shits and giggles.”

Moro’s allegations against the president have riled up Bolsonaro’s radical political base. Bolsonaro supporters, who last year took to the streets to defend Moro during the scandal over The Intercept’s leaks, bearing images of Moro as superman, now have new signs. These ones label Moro a traitor. On a May 17, some in Brasilia even carried coffins with the former minister’s image attached.

Supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro demonstrate with a coffin with the portrait of Brazilian former Justice Minister Sergio Moro, Brazilian and Israeli flags during a rally in Brasilia on May 17, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.SERGIO LIMA/AFP via Getty Images

Moro says he tries not to take such labels personally, and brushes off questions of personal loyalty to the president. “I didn’t enter the government to serve a master. I entered it to serve the country, the law.”

Nevertheless, he is tight-lipped about the president’s current leadership of Brazil, which public health experts have condemned for worsening the country’s COVID-19 death toll. Brazil currently has the world’s second-highest daily death rate and epidemiologists say the peak is still weeks away. The president has railed against social distancing measures, waging what he calls a “war” against local governors who try to implement them, and dismissed the virus as “a little cold”. He fired his health minister in mid-April for publicly defying his stance; the man who replaced him resigned after just a few weeks on the job. (An active-duty army general is now serving as Interim health minister.) Moro says he felt uncomfortable being part of a government whose leadership was not taking the virus seriously. “But my focus is on the rule of law.”

He says it’s “difficult for [him] to make an assessment” as to whether the president shares his definition of corruption. But he hopes Brazilians do, he says. “Brazil is a firm democracy. Its institutions sometimes suffer some attacks but they are working. And there’s a growing perception in public opinion that we need to strengthen the pillars of our democracy, including the rule of law. Those desires continue, despite the circumstances of the moment.”

The optimistic and careful tone of that statement could sound like a politician running for office. Speculation that Moro might run for president in 2022, or to be a state governor, is rife, though he is evasive about the idea of reentering politics. “That’s not the concern of the moment,” he says.”I’ve just left the government. I need to re establish my private life. And we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”

Instead, he says, “after six years of turbulence, some time for self-reflection might be advisable.” He has job offers from universities to become a law professor again. Under Brazilian law, he cannot return to the judiciary. “I don’t have a way to go back and take up my role as judge again. I’ve lost that forever,” he says. “I have to reinvent myself somehow.”

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Write to Ciara Nugent at ciara.nugent@time.com