Future for Brazil’s Lula hangs on apartment in decaying city

GUARUJA, Brazil (AP) — A beachfront apartment sits at the center of a corruption case that could keep Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva from running for Brazil’s presidency again.

Da Silva is the front-runner in polls ahead of October’s presidential election, but he was convicted last year of corruption and money laundering tied to the apartment and a panel of judges is supposed to rule Wednesday on his appeal. If the conviction is upheld, the still highly popular politician who was president in 2003-2010 could be barred from seeking office.

Although da Silva never owned the apartment, prosecutors charged that he was promised it as a kickback from construction company OAS. A former CEO of the company testified under a plea bargain that the apartment was reserved for da Silva.

Judge Sergio Moro, the magistrate at the center of the mammoth "Car Wash" corruption investigation that has roiled Brazil in recent years, convicted da Silva after finding he headed a corruption scheme that gave OAS more than $25 million in government contracts in exchange for the apartment, worth about $600,000 at the time.

Da Silva and his lawyers say the former president never owned or lived in the apartment and he made one only visit there to consider a business opportunity that never went forward.

The 3,197-square-foot (297-square-meter) apartment in the Solaris complex faces Asturias Beach, one of the busiest in Guaruja, a decaying city that was once a playground for the elite in Sao Paulo state. Big names still spend time in the city, including football superstar Neymar, but none anywhere near the Solaris complex.

People in the area call the complex of 18 floors and a total of 128 apartments "Lula’s building," relying on the name that Brazilians use for da Silva.

Opened in 2014, the Solaris has balconies made of glass, except for the rooftop apartment allegedly reserved for Da Silva. In that unit, a modest swimming pool, a barbecue area and wooden furniture can be seen from above.

The Solaris stands amid an ice cream parlor selling basic and cheap sweets, a simple artisan shop and buildings at least four decades old.

In front of the building is a sandwich kiosk called Lula Lanches, or "Lula Snacks," though it has no connection to the former president.

"I have people coming here to buy because of him and others who come saying they regret giving Lula any money," joked owner Lucia Silveira. "This place has become a touristic spot in the city."

Most Solaris visitors in January and February, summer months in the Southern Hemisphere, rent units that are around 860 square feet (80 square meters). One of those apartments is currently listed on Airbnb for $40 a night.

Da Silva’s lawyer, Cristiano Zanin, said during an interview with The Associated Press that da Silva’s family acquired rights in 2005 to buy an 860-square-foot unit from a cooperative named Bancoop, which owned several buildings around Sao Paulo state. Four years later, when da Silva was still president, Bancoop went bankrupt and was bought by OAS.

Moro, the judge who convicted da Silva, ruled that a criminal act was committed when da Silva accepted the much bigger and renovated apartment at the Solaris.

Da Silva’s wife, Marisa Leticia, who died last year, acknowledged visiting the Solaris more than once, but da Silva’s lawyers said that proves nothing.

"Lula was never the owner, never received the keys to the apartment, never spent a night there," Zanin said.

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