Brazil congressional committee vote deals blow to ex-speaker

AP News
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Posted: Jun 14, 2016 7:04 PM

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — One of Brazil's most powerful men was dealt a major blow on Tuesday, when a legislative ethics committee voted in favor of a motion to strip the former speaker of Congress' lower house of his mandate over allegations he lied when he denied possessing foreign bank accounts.

Eduardo Cunha has been regarded as one of Brazil's most skilled political operators, and even though he's been beset by corruption allegations and was removed from the post of speaker, he still wields considerable influence in Congress. It came as little surprise, then, that Tuesday's long-awaited vote by the Chamber of Deputies' ethics committee was a nail-biter. Many observers predicted that Cunha's supporters would succeed in defeating the measure.

The 11-9 result hinged on one single vote, that of Rep. Tia Eron from the northeastern Bahia state. The vote was postponed last week after Eron failed to show up to the committee.

In remarks as she delivered her swing vote, Eron said she was voting in accordance with her conscience. Cunha's foes broke into raucous cheers as Eron delivered her vote, with some brandishing placards saying that popular pressure had won the day.

"We are facing the biggest scandal this body has ever ruled on," said Rep. Marcos Rogerio, who authored the report recommending that Cunha be stripped of his mandate.

The ethics committee's narrow approval of the motion against Cunha means the matter will move to the full Chamber of Deputies, where it needs a simple majority of 257 out of 513 votes to take effect.

The ethics committee's inquiry was focused on allegations Cunha lied when he told a separate parliamentary committee he didn't hold foreign accounts.

Swiss prosecutors contend that Cunha held secret accounts at the Julius Baer bank worth an estimated $5 million, funds that Brazilian investigators suspect are linked to a corruption scheme at state oil company Petrobras. Cunha has insisted on his innocence, acknowledging using money from the accounts but denying they actually belonged to him. He maintains he was merely the beneficiary of what he called "trusts," belonging to others.

Cunha's fate has become a hot-button issue among many in Brazil who regard the ex-speaker as a symbol of everything that is wrong with the country's political system, which is embroiled in a sprawling investigation centered around a kickbacks scheme at Petrobras. Cunha managed to delay the ethics committee proceedings against him, dragging the process out for some eight months. It has become the longest-lasting process of its kind in Brazilian congressional history, according to the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper.

Cunha was the powerhouse behind the impeachment process against his nemesis, President Dilma Rousseff, who has been impeached and suspended pending a final vote in the process. The proceedings hinge on allegations Rousseff's government employed accounting tricks to hide deficits in the federal budget. She denies the accusations.