A member of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff’s inner circle who masterminded her two successful election campaigns, Joao Santana is accused by prosecutors of receiving payment for his services in money illegally siphoned from state oil company Petrobras.
A prize-winning journalist before he became Latin America’s most successful campaign strategist, the 63-year-old Santana says the allegations are unfounded and politically motivated.
Rousseff’s opponents welcomed the sight of Santana and his wife being taken into police custody last week. The opposition hopes his arrest will reignite flagging support for their bid to unseat Rousseff by impeachment in Congress, on charges that she deliberately broke budget rules in 2014 to get re-elected.
But a bigger threat to Rousseff could come from the Supreme Electoral Court (TSE) which is investigating charges that her 2014 campaign was funded with dirty money.
If proof emerges that Santana received payments with funds skimmed from Petrobras, the court could invalidate her narrow victory over opposition leader Aécio Neves. “The risk of the TSE invalidating her elections is more serious now because the case against Santana could become the link between the corruption at Petrobras and the financing of her campaign,” said Rafael Cortez, a political analyst at Tendencias, a consulting firm in São Paulo.
In effect Santana’s arrest, and fears that he could plea-bargain with prosecutors, has plunged the Brazilian presidential palace into anxiety.
“Nobody expected this. This is not good for us. It involves someone so close to the president,” said a presidential aide.
Santana is not just Rousseff’s campaign strategist, he is also one of her closest consultants. He advised her on her speech to open the 2016 session of Congress on February 2 and her national address the next day on the threat of the Zika virus, presidential aides said.
Santana has been a key advisor to the ruling Workers’ Party since he steered Lula to re-election in 2006 despite a corruption scandal. The probe into secret monthly payments to lawmakers almost toppled the populist leader and led to the jailing of his top aides for buying support in Congress for his minority government. But Lula survived and won a second term.
A millionaire today, Santana’s friends call him “Patinhas,” after Donald Duck’s uncle Scrooge, a nickname he earned in his native Bahia state for being tight-fisted as a schoolboy.
The Workers’ Party said Santana was paid 70 million reais (US$17.7 million) for Rousseff’s 2014 campaign, all of it above board and officially registered with electoral authorities.
Rousseff’s chief-of-staff Jaques Wagner said the allegations against Santana had no bearing on the president. “That has no relation at all to the presidential campaign. It was all legal”.
Government officials say the TSE could struggle to differentiate legal from possibly illegal contributions in a case expected to drag on for years.
They worry; however, the TSE will adopt a more aggressive stance in May when Supreme Court justice Gilmar Mendes, an open critic of the Workers’ Party, becomes its president. Mendes has vowed to rule speedily.
Police said they arrested Santana after they found evidence of US$3 million in deposits paid to him in an offshore account in 2012 and 2013 by engineering conglomerate Odebrecht, from funds siphoned from overpriced Petrobras contracts.