SAO PAULO (AP) — Brazilian authorities on Friday were investigating a plane crash that killed the Supreme Court justice in charge of a major corruption case just weeks before he was scheduled to issue a ruling that could have revealed accusations against politicians in several Latin American countries.
The death of Justice Teori Zavascki, 68, in Thursday's crash is likely to delay, though not derail, the "Car Wash" investigation, the largest corruption investigation in Brazil's history. Investigators allege inflated contracts with state oil giant Petrobras and other state-run companies yielded billions of dollars for bribes and election campaigns.
The small plane went down in heavy rains Thursday just off the coast of Paraty, a colonial town and popular vacation spot about 155 miles (250 kilometers) west of Rio de Janeiro. Rescuers said Friday that they had recovered all five bodies from the crash, including Zavascki, the pilot, a businessman, a woman who worked for the businessman, and her mother.
Although the cause was unclear, many Brazilians voiced fears of foul play since Zavascki held such an important role in the corruption investigation, in which dozens of politicians and businessmen already have been jailed. Transparency International called for a full investigation into the crash, and federal police and the public prosecutor have opened probes alongside those of aviation authorities.
The voice recorder was found Friday and is being sent to an Air Force laboratory, the Brazilian Air Force said in a statement. The wreckage of the plane will be analyzed in Rio de Janeiro state, where the crash occurred.
The prosecutor's office has already asked aviation authorities for documents about the plane's maintenance and the cockpit recordings.
While the "Car Wash" probe — known as "Lava Jato" in Brazil — has been led by a team of prosecutors and Judge Sergio Moro in the southern city of Curitiba, Zavascki handled cases involving politicians. Under Brazilian law, only the Supreme Court can decide to charge or jail federal politicians.
Zavascki had been reviewing dozens of plea bargains of former and current executives of the Odebrecht construction company, which was one of the main players in the kickback scheme that prosecutors say yielded more than $2 billion in bribes over a decade.
The justice was expected to decide which of the Odebrecht plea bargains to validate by February, and his death will likely drag out that timeline. Validation would make them public, potentially implicating dozens of politicians in Brazil and several other countries where Odebrecht did business.
President Michel Temer, who could be one of those implicated in the plea bargains, is supposed to name Zavascki's successor, who would typically take over the deceased justice's caseload.
However, the court itself could also decide to transfer Zavascki's cases to a sitting justice, and the country's bar association encouraged the court to do so.
"The immediate reassignment of the Lava Jato case ... is imperative," Claudio Lamachia, chairman of the bar association, said in a statement.
Analysts expressed confidence the case would continue despite Zavascki's death.
"The Lava Jato probe will not suffer a material setback," Christopher Garman of Eurasia Group wrote in a note. "And we wouldn't bet on too large of a delay. There will be tremendous pressure within the court, and in public opinion, to keep the investigations alive."
In his plea deal testimony, former Odebrecht director Claudio Melo Filho cited Temer 44 times, making accusations of illegal campaign financing. If his allegations are confirmed by Brazil's top electoral court, Temer would be removed from the presidency and Congress would pick a successor. Temer denies any wrongdoing.
About 100 politicians and business executives have already been arrested or are under investigation in Brazil in the probe. In addition to Temer, senior Cabinet members and close aides and allies of the president have been implicated in testimony from some of those arrested.
Associated Press writers Peter Prengaman in Rio de Janeiro and Mauricio Savarese in Chapeco contributed this report.