Trashing Fernando

updated 09/14/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/14/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

BRAZILIANS LOVE THEIR NOVELAS, THE nightly television soap operas that feature tangled tales of deceit and sexual intrigue. Yet nothing onscreen this season can rival the true-life story of Fernando Collor de Mello, 43, Brazil's President. He is enmeshed in a saga involving charges of extortion—there are also allegations of infidelity and drug use—that may well lead to his impeachment or resignation. "We Brazilians are used to corruption," says Rio banker Renato Lima. "But we have never seen anything like Collor. The amounts involved are mind-boggling."

Best of all for novela fans, the chief whistle-blower is Pedro Collor, 39, the President's younger brother, who charges, among other things, that the President tried to seduce his wife. "I know I did the right thing," says Pedro, sitting in the antique-filled den of his six-bedroom mansion in Maceió, a sleepy rural city in northeastern Brazil.

The family feud began last May when Pedro attacked the President during an interview with Veja, the country's largest newsmagazine. He alleged that Paulo César Farias, Fernando's former campaign fundraiser, was really the President's secret partner in schemes to pocket millions of dollars through kickbacks from businessmen and through influence-peddling. Some initially dismissed Pedro's tale, noting that Farias was a business rival.

The charges were hotly denied by Fernando, who was elected in 1989 as a clean-government candidate. "In my name and that of my family, I...ask forgiveness from the nation for the unease created by the false and absurd declarations made by my brother," he said on TV. He then sued Pedro for slander and libel and questioned his soundness of mind. Fernando's supporters were quick to dismiss Pedro as a jealous sibling. Pedro was also rebuked by Leda Collor, the widowed 74-year-old matriarch of the clan, who fired him as head of the family publishing business just before he went public, calling him "emotionally disturbed." He underwent three days of well-publicized tests to "prove" his sanity. Pedro, who still receives financial support from family funds, says he has "no relationship" with either his mother or Fernando.

Pedro claims the President was "a regular consumer of cocaine" in the early 1970s. "We smoked marijuana too and tried LSD four or five times," he says. "As Fernando was my older brother, I went along."

As for the attempted seduction of his wife, Tereza, Pedro claims that that occurred in 1987, during a troubled time in their marriage. Fernando, then a state governor, "called Tereza and asked her to meet him at the governor's palace," says Pedro. "They met for three hours in the same room where Fernando used to regularly have intercourse with other girls. Of course I suspected something. I mean they can talk for half an hour, but three hours?"

"I never had anything with Fernando," declares Tereza, 29. "He is very paternalistic and was trying to play the role of big brother." Still, she adds, "I'm not sure what his real intentions were."

If Fernando found his sister-in-law exciting, he wasn't alone. On June 4, Pedro appeared before a congressional committee investigating Farias. He was 10 minutes into his testimony when Tereza made a dramatic miniskirted entrance. The next day her photos monopolized Brazil's front pages. The daughter of a wealthy sugarcane baron, Tereza shrugs off the attention. "I went the way I normally dress," she says. "I like miniskirts because I think with my figure, I look better in them." As for Pedro, he admits to a one-night fall from grace, a month before he went public with his charges, with a beauty named Wanya Guerreiro, 30. "She was all over me. I have never seen am thing like it," he says. But the next day he discovered that Guerreiro was a former girlfriend of Farias. Suspecting a setup, he says, "I sent her packing."

Pedro now says all is well in his marriage to Tereza. "I'm a Sagittarius, a man of action. She; is a Libra and much more levelheaded. I'm learning from her."

Following Pedro's lead, investigators seized checks linked to Farias totaling $3.5 million deposited in accounts held by the President, his wife, Rosane, his mother and close associates. The records show that the money was used for personal expenses. Another $3 million was used for a "renovation" of the President's residence. Last week, congress began debating his impeachment, and a possible federal inquiry could put Collor in jail for 18 years for corruption. As anti-Collor protests rocked the country and even his closest allies deserted him, the former reformer clung to power the old-fashioned way—boosting government salaries and doling out patronage. Despite being largely persona non grata in his own family, Pedro is at peace with himself. "I have no regrets," he says simply. "I told the truth.' "

JOHN MAIER JR. in Maceió

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