A wave of political scandals has paralyzed Brazil By Jack Chang McClatchy Newspapers BRASILIA, Brazil - Two weeks before Brazilians head to the polls, a wave of scandals has paralyzed every branch of government and sparked widespread public outrage over what many say are the country's corrupt institutions. The breadth of corruption revealed over the past months has been dramatic. Nearly a third of the legislators in Brazil's federal Chamber of Deputies are under investigation in connection with crimes ranging from siphoning public health money to owning slaves. In the Amazonian state of Rondonia, all but one state deputy has been linked to a fraud scheme that paid millions of dollars in salaries to nonexistent staff members. The accusations haven't spared President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who came to power in 2003 promising to clean up the system. His government nearly collapsed last year after a legislative ally blew the whistle on a bribes-for-votes scheme that involved top government officials. "Never has there been a time with so many scandals and so much corruption documented," said Ricardo Rebeiro, an analyst with the Brazilian firm MCN Consultants. "The level of corruption has always been there, but it's never been revealed like it is now." The onslaught of scandals, most of them still unproved, has fed public anger before the Oct. 1 elections and sparked a growing movement to turn in a blank vote rather than choose between unsavory candidates. "We're paying a very high price for all of this," said bank teller Rosa Melo, who was among several hundred people marching recently in an anti-government protest in Brasilia, the capital. "People are getting very disillusioned. They're dropping out of political life, which is very dangerous." The newspaper O Globo estimated last month that money laundering, graft and other forms of corruption had drained $5 billion from public coffers since 2003. While Brazilian politics has never been known for transparency, revelations of political misconduct can still shock this country of 187 million people. Newspapers have been filled with details about scandals. Congressional investigations into the accusations have dominated the political agenda for months. As befits this nickname-happy country, where the president is known simply as Lula (or "squid" in Portuguese), each scandal gets a catchy handle soon after allegations are aired. The largest scandal, dubbed the "bloodsuckers" scheme, involves 72 members of Congress who allegedly accepted bribes to buy ambulances at inflated prices on behalf of 60 mayors, many of whom also supposedly were paid off. Three-fifths of the legislators allegedly involved in the scandal are allies of Lula's government. Last month, federal police concluded an investigation dubbed "Operation Vampire," accusing federal health officials of accepting bribes to buy overpriced hemophilia medication and other medical supplies. Investigators charged 42 businessmen, lobbyists and health officials, including former Health Minister Humberto Costa, with fraud and other offenses. The bribes-for-vote scandal, dubbed the "mensalao" ("big monthly allowance"), has had the biggest impact, leading to the expulsion of three federal deputies and the resignations of top government officials. Lula's administration is accused of paying legislators as much as $18,500 a month for political support and of keeping secret bank accounts. The wave of sleaze has even included accusations of slave-owning, a persistent problem in Brazil's lawless north. Two legislators, Sen. Joao Ribeiro and Federal Deputy Inocencio Oliveira, both from the Liberal Party, have been charged with keeping workers in slave-like conditions on ranches they owned. The only branch of government still largely untouched by scandal has been the judiciary, although investigations into corruption have stalled most other business. With the election season in full swing, explaining where all the misconduct comes from has become a debate in itself. Deputy Raul Jungmann, whose Popular Socialist Party includes two legislators allegedly implicated in the "bloodsuckers" scandal, blames Lula's government. Members of the president's Workers' Party said the misconduct came to light only because Lula let federal investigators do their job, even if it hurt him and his allies. In the view of Rodrigo Collaco, the president of the Association of Brazilian Magistrates, the scandals are a sign of hope for Brazilian democracy 21 years after the last dictatorship ended. Institutions such as the federal police - the Brazilian equivalent of the FBI - and election courts are winning enough independence to look into allegations rather than turn a blind eye, as had been the tradition for years, he said. "The investigations and revelations of corruption show Brazil's institutions are strengthening," Collaco said. "Even with the worst crisis possible, no one is talking about limiting the power of prosecutors or the judiciary." Flaws in the system have worsened the problems, he and other analysts said. He singled out parliamentary procedures that allow legislators to disburse a certain amount of public money, a practice that's enabled fraud. Legislators also escape accountability because election laws make voters choose at-large federal deputies rather than district representatives "There's no connection at all between citizens and the people they elect," Collaco said. "There's no follow-up on people's mandates." One of those accused in the "bloodsuckers" scandal, Deputy Paulo Gouvea, said society at large was to blame. With everyday corruption such as tax evasion and bribery widespread, political malfeasance was only natural, he said, although he maintained his own innocence. Despite growing demands for political reform, prospects for it aren't good. Lula and the major parties touched by the accusations aren't sustaining much damage, polls show. In fact, two-thirds of the politicians accused in the "bloodsuckers" scandal are running for re-election, with many favored to win.