SAO PAULO (AP) — Brazil's Supreme Court voted unanimously Thursday to allow corruption charges against a key congressional leader in a step that could weaken efforts to impeach President Dilma Rousseff.
Ten justices voted to allow charges against Eduardo Cunha, the head of the lower house of Congress, who stands accused of taking at least $5 million in bribes involving a contract by state oil company Petrobras. The court's eleventh justice was out of the country during Thursday's vote.
Under Brazilian law, charges against federal congressmen and other top government officials can only be filed and judged by the Supreme Court.
Cunha is one of the biggest names implicated in the widespread corruption scandal involving alleged billions of dollars in bribes. He is also a sworn enemy of President Rousseff, having authorized the opening of impeachment proceedings against her late last year over allegations she violated fiscal responsibility laws.
Analysts say the Supreme Court's decision could undermine efforts to impeach Rousseff.
"The government can use that as a trump card in the sense that they can say that the person who is accusing the president of having committed a crime probably committed a crime himself," said Pedro Fassoni Arruda, a professor of political science at Sao Paulo's Pontifical Catholic University. "This could change the balance of power between the government and the opposition, fortifying the government and weakening those who support Dilma's impeachment."
Prosecutors allege that Cunha accepted at least $5 million in bribes between 2006 and 2012 in connection with the construction of two Petrobras drilling ships. He is charged with corruption and money laundering.
Cunha has denied any wrongdoing. After the Supreme Court session began on Wednesday, he told reporters: "Truth is on my side. I am innocent."
The Supreme Court has not yet weighed in on whether Cunha can continue to serve as head of the lower house and finish the more than two years that remain of his term representing Rio de Janeiro state. Attorney General Rodrigo Janot has asked the Supreme Court to remove him from office but the court has not yet taken up the matter.
Prosecutors in the so-called Car Wash investigation into corruption at Petrobras say more than $2 billion was paid in bribes by businessmen to obtain contracts with the oil giant. Investigators also have said that some of the money made its way to several political parties, including the governing Workers' Party.
Associated Press writer Jenny Barchfield contributed from Rio de Janeiro