RIO DE JANEIRO: Brazil was proud of its football World Cup and Olympics stadiums, but the shame of the country’s corruption saga has engulfed even these monuments to fair play.
A bribery scandal linked to construction firm Odebrecht that has swept up scores of politicians has also tainted the legacy of the 2014 World Cup and last year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
An array of Odebrecht managers, who had reached plea bargains in hopes of lighter sentences, have pointed fingers at top ministers and deputies. Their filmed testimonies were broadcast this week on Brazilian television.
Odebrecht is known as a construction king in Latin America, and the Brazilian sports venues are some of the jewels in its crown.
“Without us there would have been no World Cup and no Olympic Games. There would have been nothing,” the company’s jailed former boss Marcelo Odebrecht said in his filmed testimony.
The focus on Odebrecht stemmed from a broader probe into corruption involving state oil firm Petrobras.
Under investigation for bribery in several Latin American countries, Odebrecht is accused of bribing officials to fix public contracts on a dizzying scale.
“Unfortunately, in the national context of corruption that has been devastating Brazil for so many decades, it is not surprising,” said Ricardo Ferreira Freitas of Rio de Janeiro State University, an expert on big sporting events.
“It’s really quite obvious,” he said. “These are big projects, and embezzlement is much easier in this kind of situation which involves long projects, lots of people and lots of money.”
‘The bribes department’
The torrent of confessions reveals irregularities in the construction of at least half of the 12 stadiums used during the 2014 World Cup, according to the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper.
Odebrecht also built the Olympic Park and athletes’ village, both of which have since fallen largely into disuse.
The firm was paying so many bribes it had to set up an entire accounting department to handle the transactions, according to the testimony of former executives.
It was known in the company as “the structured operations section” — or simply “the bribes department,” they said.
The department listed the payments in files that identified politicians who received them by nicknames.
One executive said bribes totaling more than $7 million were paid in 2012 to former Rio mayor Eduardo Paes when he was running for re-election.
Paes, who waved the Olympic flag in the closing ceremony of the Games in Rio’s Maracana stadium, has rejected the accusations as “absurd.”
The Maracana itself, one of the world’s most iconic football stadiums, is also linked to allegations of suspiciously inflated contracts.
The cost of renovation work on the historic venue came in at some $380 million, more than twice the initial budget.
A report by the Rio public budget authorities said the cement alone was billed at three times the market price, adding some $7 million to the cost.
Dinner with Ronaldo
Another notable case was the Corinthians Arena football ground in Sao Paulo, the venue for the opening match of the World Cup.
Marcelo Odebrecht said in his recorded testimony that the contract to renovate that stadium was fixed “informally” during a dinner at his home in 2011.
The guests included the then governor and mayor of Sao Paulo and former Brazil footballer Ronaldo, a one-time star of the Corinthians team.
“They brought Ronaldo along to add importance to the event,” Odebrecht said.
He alleged that the idea to involve Odebrecht in the project came from Brazil’s leftist former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a Corinthians fan.
Lula faces charges in various affairs related to the Petrobras scandal, which has also netted prominent allies of current conservative president Michel Temer.