Ouster of Brazil lawmaker could open political Pandora's box

AP News
Posted: Sep 13, 2016 4:54 PM
Ouster of Brazil lawmaker could open political Pandora's box

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The ouster of once powerful lawmaker Eduardo Cunha poses a threat to other politicians, potentially including Brazil's new president.

Analysts said Tuesday it could lead to more people becoming ensnared in the corruption scandals roiling Latin America's largest nation.

Cunha no longer enjoys the partial immunity from prosecution that comes with elected office; only the country's highest court can decide to try federal lawmakers. That means the several corruption cases he faces will now go to a lower court judge who is famous for locking up prominent figures.

"Cunha has lost his Supreme Court cover so he may begin to sing in terms of a plea bargain to get a reduced sentence," said David Fleischer, a political analyst in the capital, Brasilia. "In doing that, he could accuse a lot of people and open up many Pandora's boxes."

Cunha, known for regularly seeking the spotlight, kept a low profile a day after being stripped of his seat on a vote by congressional colleagues over secret bank accounts in Switzerland. His Twitter account, where he often posts passages from the Bible, was dormant, and local media reported he was holed up in his apartment in Brasilia.

Before he was voted out of office late Monday, he proclaimed his innocence and said he was being punished for leading the successful effort to impeach and remove from office President Dilma Rousseff.

His colleagues in the Chamber of Deputies voted 450-10 to remove him from office, a stunning fall for a man who only months ago was seen by many as the most powerful politician in Brazil.

While Cunha's ouster means he is barred from holding office for several years, his next moves could have wide political implications for the country and the government of new President Michel Temer.

Temer, Cunha and other officials and lawmakers have been implicated in the kickback scandal at state oil company Petrobras, which has led to the jailing of many business executives and top politicians in the last two years.

The two men have long been party allies, but Cunha lashed out at Temer's government Monday and accused it of wanting his ouster as a "trophy."

Analysis group Eurasia said Cunha's prominent position means he may have damning information on anyone involved in the Petrobras case.

"Cunha amassed significant clout in congress precisely given his skill in distributing illicit funds to legislators," said the group's latest analysis.

Watchdog groups estimate 60 percent of lawmakers in both chambers of Congress are being investigated for alleged wrongdoing, in many cases for Petrobras-related corruption.

Temer, who was vice president before Rousseff was removed from office last month on charges of illegal budget maneuvers, is already on shaky ground after a bruising impeachment fight that further soured the national mood about politicians. He denies any wrongdoing in the Petrobras case.

He did not comment publicly about Cunha on Tuesday, instead announcing plans to privatize many industries as part of his push to revive Brazil's struggling economy.

Prosecutors accuse Cunha of corruption and money laundering related to his role in negotiating Petrobras contracts for drill ships. They allege he received millions of dollars in bribes.

But the only issue at play in his ouster was whether he lied about having secret Swiss bank accounts reportedly worth the equivalent of $2.5 million. Brazilian investigators say he also has had undeclared accounts in the United States since 1990 totaling more than $20 million.

Cunha, who said the accounts belonged to a trust, was pressured into resigning as speaker in July after they came to light. But, denying any wrongdoing, he had refused to give up his post as a lawmaker.

In a heated Monday night session, several lawmakers tore into the four-term lawmaker.

Clarissa Garotinho of the Party of the Republic called Cunha a "psychopath" for "believing his own lies" and allegedly using his family to hide untoward dealings.

The case against Cunha advanced in part because prosecutors charged his wife, Claudia Cruz, after evidence showed a secret bank account linked to Cunha was in her name.