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A Probe Into Olympic Corruption Is Making Brazilians Think of Pizza

Rio’s city council has launched an inquiry into spending around the 2016 Olympics that some fear will “end up as pizza” — a Brazilian term meaning a cover up.

by Donna Bowater
May 4 2016, 8:35pm

Photo by Michael Kappeler/AP Images

A probe into spending on the Rio 2016 Olympics kicked off this week and has already been dismissed by some as a whitewash or, as Brazilians say, vai acabar em pizza — it's going to end up as pizza.

The city council inquiry, launched on Tuesday, stems from widespread suspicions that there were dubious deals behind Olympic legacy projects such as the extension of Rio's metro system, and the regeneration of its port.

It follows revelations that emerged as part of the massive judicial probe that has uncovered over-inflated contracts within the oil giant Petrobras. That investigation — known as the Lava Jato or Car Wash — has linked some of the same construction firms to allegedly suspicious payments in deals for Olympic preparations.

Calls for a specific investigation into Olympic infrastructure projects also grew dramatically last month after the collapse of an elevated bike route along the Rio Coast. The newly-inaugurated route, which cost about $12 million, killed at least two people when part of it fell into the sea amid suspicions of shoddy and rushed work.

Now the new five-person council commission is itself being questioned, not least because it is packed with members of the same political party as the mayor of Rio de Janeiro — the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, or PMDB.

"This is a bad sign for the start of our work," said Jefferson Moura, who is the only non-PMDB member on the commission and the city councillor who proposed the investigation in the first place. "They want to transform the inquiry into pizza."

Moura, a sociologist and member of the REDE party, put particular stress on the designation of PMDB members in the key positions of president and rapporteur within the commission that was only formed after a court overruled several efforts by council leaders to spike it.

Related: 'A Tragedy Foretold': Architects Say Rio's Olympic Bike Path Was Destined to Collapse

Normally, the councillor who proposed the inquiry is given a leading role.

Jorge Felippe, the president of the city council, initially turned down Moura's petition to set up an inquiry into Olympic spending. He argued that it was beyond the city council's remit because some of the infrastructure, such as the extension of the metro, falls within state jurisdiction.

That decision was overturned in court by a judge who said Felippe's argument was "unacceptable and arbitrary."

On Tuesday, Felippe denied the claims that the refusal to open the inquiry had anything to do with the mayor, Eduardo Paes.

Thiago Ribeiro, another PMDB member, also denied that there would be party politics involved in the inquiry after he was elected its rapporteur.

"The Olympics will end, as will our mandates, and that of Mayor Eduardo Paes," Ribeiro said. "What we have to worry about is the Olympic legacy and the image of the city of Rio de Janeiro that will remain."

The committee's launch took place hours after the Olympic flame touched down 700 miles away in the capital Brasilia ahead of its tour of the country before the opening ceremony on August 5.

The inquiry now has up to 180 days to review the accounts and contracts related to Olympic facilities, visit the sites themselves, and generally investigate whether the contracts have all been legitimate.

Moura said he is still hoping he can force it into aggressively pursuing evidence of kickbacks in the style of the multi-billion dollar Car Wash investigation, which has wrought havoc in the national political elite by heaping suspicion, and sometimes charges, on prominent politicians from across the political spectrum.

"There is a big battle ahead," Andrea Correa posted in a message of support on councilman Moura's Facebook page.

Related: The Rio Olympics Just Got $500 Million Less Secure

Operation Car Wash began two years ago and shows no sign of letting up. Police carried out 67 search warrants and 15 arrests in March as part of the operation. They included raids that uncovered alleged evidence of bribes from construction firm Odebrecht to those with government links for Olympic-related projects.

Emails and spreadsheets seized from a former Odebrecht secretary pointed to 2.5 million reals, about $700,000, paid to former Rio state governor Sergio Cabral as part of the deal to extend the metro closer to the Olympic Park.

There was also alleged evidence of kickbacks in the port redevelopment project, which has included new roads, a railway, and museums. The port consortium is made up of Odebrecht, OAS, and Carioca Engenharia.

Rio's City Hall has denied any wrongdoing and said a public-private partnership had funded the port regeneration, using no public money.

The new city council committee is the first specific effort to focus on allegations of bribery behind the Olympics. Any evidence of illegal acts it finds can be passed to the public prosecutor's office to assess whether there are charges that can and should be brought.

"The battle begins now. It's like being a Brazilian athlete — you have to slay a dragon every day," councilman Moura said of the start of the inquiry. "We will fight. It's the obligation of the councilors to investigate."

Related: Rio Has Three Times More Zika Cases Than Any Other State in Brazil

Follow Donna Bowater on Twitter: @DonnaBow

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