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One of the biggest corruption scandals in Brazil's history has an unlikely hero. He's a 35-year-old, Harvard-educated lawyer who says his inspiration is Gandhi. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro went to meet him in a sleepy state capital that's become a beacon for fighting white-collar crime.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Like so many things that become really huge, it started small, with an email.
DELTAN DALLAGNOL: A simple email that was exchanged between one of the main characters of this case and a seller of vehicles.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We'll hear more about that in a moment. First meet Deltan Dallagnol. He's the lead prosecutor in a case that has unprecedented scope. It's led to the arrests of the heads of some of Latin America's biggest companies. It's implicated leading political figures in Brazil, including the heads of both houses of Congress, and it sent the Brazilian economy into a tailspin. We sit down to talk in his office in Curitiba, the state capital of Parana in Brazil's south. He's clean-cut, brown hair, soft eyes, earnest, but he can laugh about all the attention he's been getting. He asks me what I want to talk about.
You're involved in - I don't what it is.
DALLAGNOL: I don't either.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is it? Oh. Oh, I know. There's something.
DALLAGNOL: Rich cars.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The name of this vast investigation into corruption at the state oil company here is Lava-Jato, or carwash. So now back to that email. In it, a known money launderer wrote that he was buying a new car for a former executive at Petrobras, the state oil company.
DALLAGNOL: A famous money laundering agent giving a car for free for a guy. What was that? So we began investigating.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That investigation turned into a thread that, when pulled, unraveled a vast scheme. The way it worked was some of Brazil's biggest contractors would overcharge Petrobras for work and then would funnel the extra money to politicians and others in bribes and kickbacks to the tune of billions. The sheer scale has shocked the country.
Did you imagine that this would go this far?
DALLAGNOL: No, we had no idea.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dallagnol says he become a prosecutor at 22, with dreams of transforming Brazil. This, in short, is his manifesto.
DALLAGNOL: We can have a better country with less corruption and punishing people that are powerful and rich who commit the same wrongs than the others. I believe that is possible and that we have to pursue this.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But then he came up against cold Brazilian reality. Whatever the failings of the U.S. justice system, he says, Brazil is far worse. Most cases take over a decade to resolve. Politicians have immunity, so more than half the Congress has been charged with some kind of crime, but individuals are rarely punished. Disillusioned, he wanted to learn how to do things better, so he went to Harvard Law and became an admirer of American jurisprudence.
DALLAGNOL: The American point of view, I think - much more practical. They are much more effective.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: When he came back to Brazil, he decided to put what he learned into practice. He has a reverence for the law and for Gandhi, who was also a lawyer.
DALLAGNOL: He was only a lawyer who saw a very unjust system and who fighted in order to change that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dallagnol doesn't see himself as Gandhi. He's kind of humble. In fact, since the case exploded, he worries people expect him to cure Brazil's many problems.
DALLAGNOL: We realize that we could not deliver that for the people, and we thought about how we could reach it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: His answer - Hong Kong. It went from one of the most corrupt places in the world to one of the cleanest. He and his team have come up with 10 recommendations for Brazil based on what happened there. He sent the plan to the Congress, and he wants the public to get behind it, too. Dallagnol and his team have been compared by some to the Untouchable team, the reputedly incorruptible group that took down Al Capone in the 1920s.
Do you think things are changing in Brazil now? Do you think this is an example that things can actually change?
DALLAGNOL: I would describe ourselves as the stubborn guys, not the untouchable guys - the guys that don't give up what they believe.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says he's at the beginning of a very long road. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Curitiba. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.