Saturday, June 02, 2007

Brazil: Family Feuds Down the Rabbit Hole

If you find amusement in the Bancroft family's tap-dance routine to demonstrate that refusing to sell Dow Jones is all about journalistic principle at $60 a share, but honorably do-able at $65, you might be interested in the next chapter unfolding down the rabbit hole in Brazil.

Dueling representatives of groups of relatives of the 154 people who died when the 737 crashed into the Amazon on Sept. 29 are creating turmoil in the various congressional panels looking into the crash itself, and also investigating the subsequent work protests in which air traffic controllers -- citing bad equipment, unsafe work conditions and poor pay and training, and the fear they were going to get blamed for the disaster -- virtually shut down Brazil's air system for days at a time during the months after the Sept. 29 crash.

I mean no disrespect to those who died. When those two planes collided at 37,000 feet over the Amazon, on a collision course they had been put at by a system of errors and breakdowns by air traffic control, 154 children, women and men plunged to horrible, terrifying deaths. I was in a seat over the left wing on the Legacy jet, 10 feet from the point where the planes collided with a horrible bang. Since Sept. 30, there has not been a morning I've woken up without that scene in my head, or the thought of those 154 who died when I and six other Americans inexplicably lived.

The Brazilian government, to date, has done virtually nothing to alleviate the suffering of those victims' relatives, except to say, essentially: Get the Americans!

Thus some of the representatives of the victims' families share one goal: Easy money. In this case, the way to easy money is pin blame on the Americans, hope to get them convicted of something in Brazil's criminal courts, and then try the civil lawsuits in the United States. Because, trust me, the Brazilian Defense Department, which employs the military controllers and runs the broken-down air-traffic control system that caused this horrible disaster, isn't about to voluntarily accept responsibility, let alone cough up cash. Why, that would be an insult to Brazil's honor!

A report on the family squabbles follows.

But first some housekeeping, as the American news media have rushed half-baked into this story again today under a false alarm.

1. The American pilots were not indicted "yesterday." As I wrote previously, they were indicted on May 25 (see post from that day) by a Federal Prosecutor in Mato Grosso on a charge of involuntarily exposing an aircraft to danger. There was no grand jury involved, as there would have been in the United States. Rather, the Federal Prosecutor based his indictment on a hastily assembled report by the Federal Police, who have been on occasion referred to in this space as the Keystone Kops.

2. What did happen yesterday was that a federal judge, sitting in a little city called Sinop in Mato Grosso state, rubber-stamped the indictment and, saying he had "no choice," sent it into the pre-trial system. Sinop was chosen for this action, I am told, because it is a backwater Amazon burg with the geographical distinction of being both a few hundred miles south of the crash site, while being as far away as possible from potentially nettlesome news media in Sao Paulo and Rio.

3. The judge did not "rule" that the pilots are guilty of anything. The judge certified that the collision and deaths occurred, and said that "circumstantial evidence" presented in the Federal Police indictment was "sufficient" to indicate "in theory" that a crime might have occurred, thereby allowing the pre-trial proceedings to commence.

4. Nor did the judge rule that the pilots must come to Brazil -- by extradition if necessary -- to answer charges. Rather, he ruled that it would not be acceptable for them to answer charges in the United States. This point will become very important as the trial preparations proceed, and the opinion of a single judge in a forlorn city in Mato Grosso is not writ in stone. But presuming extradition does not apply -- and the pilots' lawyers insist the charge of involuntarily exposing an aircraft to danger is not extraditable under treaties between the United States and Brazil -- the pilots have the option of simply not going to Brazil to answer charges.

Honestly, folks, I have been doing my level best to keep you informed on the admittedly complex nuances of this story since early October.

But it's like that Boardwalk/arcade game "Whac-a-Mole," in which you use a mallet to knock a critter back down its hole, but up it pops from another hole, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. (Here is a video-game version called Whack-a-Mole.) I mean, we're even back to some nitwits down there repeating that that the American pilots were performing illegal "aerial stunts" when the crash occurred.

Anyway, onto the Family Feuds. The CPIs are the various investigative panels in congress. And don't ask why the Gol cereal snack bars have suddenly become a part of the case. Some questions simply do not have answers.

Translation, per usual, by our Sao Paulo bureau chief, Richard Pedicini:


Families split in CPI

Relatives of Flight 1907 passengers argue in House CPI and testimony is suspended.
Congressman asks Gol to change cereal bars

Solano Nascimento
Correio staff

The Chamber of Deputies Aviation Blackout CPI was the stage yesterday of loud arguments, embarrassment, and wasted time. The witness invited to speak in the name of the victims of the accident with the Gol plane in September of last year have his representativity questioned by some of the passengers' relatives, and the CPI session wound up being interrupted.

Jorge André Cavalcanti, president of the Association of Families and Friends of Victims of Gol Flight 1907, was invited to testify at 1:00 PM. The night before, the first sign of alert: the CPI's report referee, Marco Maia (PT-RS), received a document with more than 100 signatures affirming that Cavalcanti did not speak in the name of the victims.

Yesterday, at the start of his deposition, Maia made reference to the questionings and asked how many families the association represented. Cavalcanti responded that the entity had 35 relatives of victims as members. Maia continued with the questioning - since not only on the petition but in the association's documents as well there are more than one relative of the same victim - , and then Cavalcanti recognized that the entity represented about 18 families. As the accident left 154 dead, there was no need for a calculator so know that Cavalcanti did not speak in the name of the majority of the relatives of passengers.

While these questionings were going on, Eulália Machado de Carvalho, who lost her husband in the accident and was listening to the session, yelled that she was leaving. "He doesn't represent anyone", she said. "I am not going to stay in this circus, no, I'm going to leave".

With such much controversy, a little more than an hour after the testimony began and before the majority of the CPI members asked questions, congressman Eduardo Cunha (PMDB-RJ) suggested the suspension of the session for in order to arrange, on some other day, a public audience with the presence of several victims' relatives. In the deposition which he gave in the morning, Constantino de Oliveira Júnior, president of Gol, affirmed that the company did not negotiate with the association of relatives of passengers who died. "Contact is made directly with the relatives of the victims."

At the end of the afternoon, another frustration for the CPI. Members of the commission met with the chief justice, Ellen Gracie, to see if the Supreme Court could oblige the pilots of the Legacy which collided with the Gol plane to testify. She explained that the Court could not intervene, and suggested that the Congressmen try other paths through the ministries of Justice and Foreign Relations.

During the morning, part of the time of Constantino Júnior's testimony was spent by legislators defining how to refer to last September's accident and to discuss the possibility of the company changing the cereal bars it supplies on flights. Vic Pires Franco (DEM-Pará), after telling a long story about the difficulty he had trying to find a cheap ticket for his daughter's boyfriend, questioned the president of Gol about the snacks served by the company: "It's just cereal bars? Can it be that you cannot change your philosophy?"

Without hiding a certain discomfort, Constantino responded: "We haven't found another product that is good and non-perishable". Vic Pires suggested then that Gol adopt bars of cupuaçu — a typical fruit of his state. Despite dealing with a tragic event, the other member of the the CPI did not share the businessman's discomfort, and laughed at their colleague's jokes.


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