RIO DE JANEIRO — Faced with growing corruption scandals, the ruling Workers' Party of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva went on the offensive Wednesday to combat allegations that it paid monthly bribes to lawmakers in exchange for support of the government's agenda in Congress.
In an emotional news conference, the party's treasurer promised to open his financial records to investigators, while opposition legislators pressed for a full congressional inquiry. Lula and his advisors have assailed the accusations as false, but the president promised to root out corruption, pledging to "cut our own flesh if necessary."
The allegations of congressional vote-buying, leveled this week by a onetime ally, are the most serious so far to hit Lula's government, which was already working feverishly to contain the fallout from another imbroglio over corruption in the postal service. The scandals have been deeply embarrassing for a party that prides itself on clean governance, and have shaken investor confidence as well as Lula's standing in the polls.
His legislative agenda, including long-awaited reforms of Brazil's tax and labor codes, appears in doubt as lawmakers hunker down for congressional inquiries of a kind that historically have left the country's political system paralyzed for months.
The latest accusations surfaced in a newspaper interview Monday with Roberto Jefferson, a federal deputy. Jefferson alleged that the treasurer for the Workers' Party, or PT, issued $12,000 monthly handouts to various legislators in return for favorable votes on government policies. Although the PT boasts the largest number of deputies in Congress, it lacks a majority, forcing Lula to govern through a fragile coalition.
Jefferson, president of the Brazilian Labor Party, said he had previously informed Lula of the setup. He said the president wept in anguish that such a thing could be going on and ordered it halted. The payments subsequently stopped, Jefferson said.
However, Jefferson has named none of the lawmakers allegedly involved. Lula's aides accuse the deputy of distorting his conversation with the president and insist that there is no proof of such a scheme.
Others smelled a blatant attempt by Jefferson to deflect attention from his own troubles as the target of the already-brewing postal service scandal, in which he is accused of participating in an elaborate kickback program.
Whatever his motivations, Jefferson's allegations triggered banner headlines and sent Lula and the PT scrambling to respond. Some analysts say the damage has already been done, regardless of the truth or falsehood of the accusations.
"The biggest problem ... however absurd the possibility of a hundred deputies receiving a monthly allowance to support the government, is that the story sounds plausible," Dora Kramer, one of Brazil's most respected political columnists, wrote in Wednesday's Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper. "It means that the hypothesis of a congressional majority founded on a purchased basis ... is neither crazy nor unbelievable."
Analysts say that Lula and the PT were slow to counterattack, presenting seemingly contradictory responses and the appearance of disunity between the party and the government.
Jose Genoino, the head of the party, sought to dispel that impression Wednesday as officials shifted into attack mode, lambasting the bribery allegations as pure fantasy but promising to have the matter cleared up.
"There is no friction between the PT and the Lula government. There is no friction between the PT and the president," Genoino told reporters.
He also insisted that there would be no "rush to judgment" and that Delubio Soares, the party treasurer, would remain in his post, even as Soares pledged to open his accounts to investigators.
Lula, who is gearing up for a reelection campaign next year, issued a forceful denunciation of official malfeasance Tuesday night at the opening of a United Nations-sponsored world anti-corruption forum in Brasilia, the capital. He called corruption a "sad legacy" of Brazil's past, a problem exacerbated by "the impunity the corrupt have always had in this country."
The government also has done an about-face on a proposed congressional inquiry into the postal service scandal, which it had previously mounted an all-out effort to block because it considered Jefferson a key ally in Congress. Following Jefferson's accusation, PT officials have announced their support for such an inquiry, which could be inaugurated as early as today.