Brazil judge releases phone taps between pres., ex-pres.

AP News
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Posted: Mar 16, 2016 9:47 PM
Brazil judge releases phone taps between pres., ex-pres.

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The judge heading the sprawling investigation into corruption at Brazil's state oil company on Wednesday released recordings of phone taps of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, which he said suggested attempts were made to influence prosecutors and judges in the former leader's favor.

In his filing, Judge Sergio Moro stressed there was no indication those attempts resulted in inappropriate actions. But the release of the tapes, coupled with President Dilma Rousseff's naming of Silva as her chief of staff in a move opponents say is designed to shield him from possible detention, were likely to further stoke sentiment against the governing Workers' Party.

Police said about 2,000 people gathered Wednesday night outside the Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia to protest Silva's nomination earlier in the day. Protesters also took to the streets of Brazil's economic capital, Sao Paulo. These smaller demonstrations came on the heels of nationwide protests against Rousseff and her Workers' Party that brought out an estimated 3 million people Sunday.

In his filing, which was made public late Wednesday along with nearly 50 recordings, Moro said: "I observe that in some dialogues, there is talk apparently of attempting to influence or obtain help from officials in the public prosecutor's office or the magistrate in favor of the ex-president."

However, he added, "there is no indication inside or outside the dialogues that those mentioned in fact proceeded in an inappropriate manner."

During the nightly newscast, presenters for Brazil's most important television network, Globo, read dialogues between Silva and several public figures, including one with Finance Minister Nelson Barbosa. In it, the minister tells Silva to be attentive to Brazil's tax agency, which was probing the former president's financial information.

"From the tenor of the taped conversations, it is clear that the ex-president already knew or at least suspected he was being taped," the judge said in the filing, adding that the tapped phone belonged to one of Silva's aides. Silva's advisers have insisted that he himself doesn't have a cellphone.

The release of the recordings came hours after Rousseff named Silva as her chief of staff, an appointment that comes after prosecutors confirmed that the former president is being looked at in several corruption probes.

Earlier this month, Silva was taken to a police station to answer questions in the investigation of a bribery scandal at Petrobras, the state oil company. Rumors that he would accept a Cabinet post surfaced shortly afterward.

Under Brazilian law, Silva's appointment makes it harder for prosecutors to go after him because only the Supreme Court can authorize the investigation, imprisonment and trial of Cabinet members and legislators. That special judicial status now applies to Silva because his appointment has appeared in a special edition of the government's official gazette.

Newscasters also read out dialogue from a conversation between Silva and Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes, which although it did not appear incriminating, was salty, with the presenters saying "bad word" each time a curse word appeared in the transcript.

In a statement late Wednesday, the presidential palace called the release of the tapes an "affront to the rights and guarantees of the presidency." It said that "all the appropriate judicial and administrative measures will be taken to repair the flagrant violation of the law and the constitution committed by the judge behind the leak."

An attorney for Silva, Cristiano Zanin Martins, condemned the recordings, saying their release was sparking a "social convulsion ... which is not the role of the judiciary."

The release of the recordings was the latest twist in a dramatic saga that has drawn comparisons to the prime-time soap operas, or "telenovelas," for which Brazil is famous.

Silva's appointment Wednesday capped days of intense speculation and hours-long meetings between the two leaders. Speaking at a news conference after the announcement, Rousseff said she was "very happy."

Rousseff, who herself was chief of staff for Silva in 2005-2010, is facing impeachment proceedings over accusations of fiscal mismanagement unrelated to the Petrobras probe.

"His joining my government strengthens my government," she said at a news conference before the recordings were released, adding: "Many people don't want it to be strengthened. But he is coming and he's coming to help."

A dexterous political operator, Silva had been seen as Rousseff's best hope for shoring up support for the government and its agenda by sealing alliances with key centrist and right-leaning parties in Congress and securing the support of social movements. He was also regarded as crucial to fending off the impeachment proceedings against Rousseff.

At the news conference, Rousseff vehemently denied Silva accepted the post to delay investigations against him, stressing that Cabinet ministers' special judicial standing does not grant them immunity.

"It doesn't mean that he will not be investigated," Rousseff said. "It's a question of whom he will be investigated by."

The opposition excoriated Wednesday's announcement, and analysts predicted it could dramatically weaken Rousseff.

"Dilma will be surrendering the presidency to Lula," said Thiago de Aragao of the Brasilia-based Arko Advice political consulting firm. "He will become the new president."

Silva, a former metalworker who entered politics as a labor union leader, presided over years of galloping economic growth that saw tens of millions of people lifted out of poverty. Although a bribes-for-votes scandal took down one of his chiefs of staff, he was wildly popular when he left office in 2010.

His support has since slipped along with Brazil's economy and the mushrooming Petrobras corruption probe.

Rousseff had been untouched by the turmoil, but the Supreme Court on Tuesday accepted a plea bargain by a former Senate leader for the Workers' Party, Delcidio do Amaral, who alleged Rousseff at least knew about wrongdoing at Petrobras, which she formerly oversaw.

Both Rousseff and Silva have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.