RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil's federal police carried out sweeping raids Tuesday in the homes and offices of top political figures ensnared in a massive corruption investigation. Among the targets was the speaker of the nation's lower house, who earlier this month introduced impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff.
Dep. Eduardo Cunha is a bitter nemesis of Rousseff and faces federal charges of corruption for allegedly accepting at least $5 million in bribes linked to a sprawling kickback scandal at state-run oil company Petrobras.
As speaker of the house, Cunha had the power to allow the impeachment process against the president to begin. Her government is accused of fiscal irregularities by using funds from state-run banks to cover budget gaps.
Cunha for months has been the leader's biggest congressional roadblock to passing austerity measures to jumpstart the moribund economy and other legislation.
The push against Cunha and several high-ranking members of his powerful party, which is split into pro- and anti-Rousseff camps despite serving as the ruling Workers' Party's strongest coalition partner since it took power in 2003, is seen as a political boost for Rousseff.
"This weakens the whole impeachment process because there will be even more fragmentation in Congress," said Francisco Fonseca, a political science professor at the Gertulio Vargas Foundation university in Sao Paulo.
Fonseca noted that protests this past weekend that called for Rousseff's impeachment were far weaker than previous rallies against her, and that while "the economy might be affected by the political turmoil in the short run ... it's important to show that Brazilian institutions" like federal police and prosecutors are independently doing their jobs, regardless of the poisonous political atmosphere.
Cunha, who told reporters on Tuesday that he's "totally innocent," has said the millions investigators found in Swiss bank accounts and linked to him was made through business dealings, was not the only figure caught up in the raids, which saw police confiscating phones, computers, documents and other items but as yet not arresting anyone.
Also targeted were two government ministers and a senator from Cunha's Brazil Democratic Movement Party, known as the PMDB. Rousseff's Vice President Michel Temer is the head of the PMDB and, should she be impeached, would take the presidency.
Cunha's fate as speaker of the lower house is being determined by an ethics committee of that body, which may rule this week on whether he should step down.
Speaking in Brasilia, Cunha lashed out on Tuesday saying that the police action was prompted by his stand against Rousseff, and that "everybody knows" that the Workers' Party "is responsible for this assault on Brazil, for the assault on Petrobras."
Social Communications Minister Edinho Silva insisted "this has nothing to do with party politics."
"This tends to raise the political instability," he acknowledged, speaking at a news conference. "That is never positive. But these facts have to be investigated."
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court could rule this week on the legality of how a special impeachment committee was formed last week in the House of Deputies. By Cunha's decree, it was created without any debate and by secret ballot, and so far its members are predominantly in favor of impeaching Rousseff.
If the impeachment measure is approved by that committee, it would then go to a full vote. If approved there by two-thirds of deputies, Rousseff may be removed from office for up to six months while the Senate decides whether she should be permanently removed, which would also require approval by two-thirds of senators.
However, the Senate President Renan Calheiros, a Rousseff ally and also a member of the PMDB, has put a motion before the Supreme Court arguing that the Senate must approve even the temporary removal of Rousseff should the impeachment measure get by the full house.
Most analysts expect the impeachment proceedings to make it out of the special committee, but for the moment Rousseff appears to have just enough support in the lower house to quash the measure in a full vote. However, Brazil's political situation is fluid and highly influenced by the ongoing federal investigation into the Petrobras kickback scheme, in which Rousseff herself has never been implicated despite serving as chairwoman of the oil company's board for several years as the graft played out.
Federal prosecutors say the Petrobras scheme is the largest corruption case yet discovered in Brazil and has resulted in an unprecedented fight against impunity for the rich and powerful in a nation where few from the elite classes have ever been held accountable for crimes.
Over 100 people have been tossed in jail in connection to the case, including the heads of the nation's biggest construction and engineering firms, the founder of Latin America's biggest investment bank and top political figures, including a senator who is a member of Rousseff's Workers' Party.
Associated Press writer Mauricio Savarese in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.
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