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Brazil rocked by Odebrecht investigations looking into Temer Cabinet members

Brazil’s President Michel Temer looks on during a ceremony at the Planalto Palace, in Brasília, Brazil, April 12, 2017.

Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin approves investigation into 108 politicians — including Aécio Neves — based on testimony obtained from plea bargain deals

RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s Supreme Court announced Tuesday that corruption investigations have been ordered for eight ministers and dozens more top politicians in a sweeping decision that affects almost one-third of President Michel Temer’s Cabinet and many of his top allies.

In total, 108 people will be investigated following Justice Edson Fachin’s ruling, which was itself the product of more than 74 probes involving plea bargain deals with former and current executives of Odebrecht, the construction giant at the centre of a bribes-for-contracts scandal.

The list of the names was published by Brazil’s top court website Tuesday night. The targets include Presidential Chief of Staff Eliseu Padilha, Lower House Speaker Rodrigo Maia, Senate President Eunício Oliveira, and the ministers of foreign affairs, agriculture and trade, among others. Also being investigated are the heads of the two major parties in Temer’s coalition and former presidential candidate Aécio Neves, who lost the election to Dilma Rousseff in 2014.

President Michel Temer vowed yesterday that Brazil’s government would forge ahead with its work, despite a bombshell announcement that corruption investigations have been opened into eight of his ministers, both leaders of Congress and numerous allies.

Given that nearly a third of his Cabinet is affected, there are concerns that the probe could endanger Temer’s push for social security and labour law reforms he says are critical to restoring economic growth after two years in recession.

“We have to move forward with government,” he said during a ceremony to sign a measure promoting women’s advancement. “If we are not careful, soon people will say the executive (branch) is not working, the legislative (branch) is not working, the judicial (branch) is not working. It’s not like that.”

He did not mention the scandal explicitly, but when asked about it later by reporters, he replied, “I will let the judiciary work.”

Foreign Minister Aloysio Nunes, a close ally of Temer, will be investigated following allegations he received US$158,000 in illegal campaign contributions in exchange for helping Odebrecht in its dealings with a state infrastructure company.

In an accusation of a particularly large alleged bribe, prosecutors will investigate whether Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi received US$3.8 million in campaign contributions from Odebrecht when he was running for governor of Mato Grosso state. According to the plea bargain testimony, Maggi helped Odebrecht collect overdue payments from the state.

Many of the ministers have said they only received legal contributions or that they hadn’t seen the evidence against them.

“I regret that my name has been included in a list of people cited in Odebrecht plea bargains, without me having any possibility of accessing the information to defend myself,” Maggi said in a statement. “I have a calm conscience that I did nothing wrong.”

Nunes, meanwhile, called the accusations “untruthful.”

‘Tsunami’

The investigations will bring “a tsunami” to Brazilian politics, said Claudio Couto, a political science professor at Fundacao Getulio Vargas, a Sao Paulo-based university and think tank.

“Every party and every state has someone there. Top congressional leaders of both houses are involved. This is proof that corruption in Brazil is systemic and there is a huge potential for this to disorganise the whole administration as of tomorrow,” Couto told The Associated Press.

The politicians have all denied any wrongdoing. Temer has temporary immunity from prosecution because Brazilian presidents can only be charged for crimes they committed during their term in office.

After authorising the investigations, Brazil’s attorney-general will proceed with them and later decide whether the accused should stand trial. Temer said recently that any ministers standing trial should step down from their Cabinet posts.

The judge’s decision comes as Brazil’s president fights to survive an electoral court trial that could remove him from office for illegal campaign financing. He is also trying to pass tough austerity measures and reforms through Congress. All this while polls show his approval rating plunging to as low as 10 percent.

As soon as the list came out, lawmakers left Brazil’s Congress and avoided reporters; a key vote to help financially strapped state governments was cancelled.

The head of Brazil’s bar association celebrated the Supreme Court’s announcement, but warned against considering all the accused guilty from the start.

“These plea bargains include statements from people who pleaded guilty and offered to help authorities. It is still necessary to verify the authenticity of their statements,” Claudio Lamachia said.

Brazil’s Supreme Court investigates politicians who hold office because of its special jurisdiction and is often slower than lower courts go after senior figures.

Justice Fachin also sent 201 investigations to lower courts for judges there to decide whether the investigations should proceed. In that list, he included three former Brazilian presidents: Dilma Rousseff, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The accusations against them have also not been released.

Fachin also decided that nine state governors would have their investigations analysed by another court, including Sao Paulo Governor and presidential hopeful Geraldo Alckmin.

Odebrecht and state oil giant Petrobras are at the centre of a wide-ranging investigation involving kickbacks and inflated contracts at state companies. The probe has ensnared dozens of high-level politicians and executives, and has grown into the biggest graft investigation in the country’s history. Prosecutors have relied heavily on plea bargains with defendants to make cases against others.

The scandal has even become a regional issue, with justice systems in other countries accusing local officials of taking bribes from the construction giant. Odebrecht has acknowledged paying almost $800 million in bribes across Latin America.

Herald with Associated Press

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