By Ricardo Brito
BRASILIA (Reuters) - A Brazilian Supreme Court justice sent a corruption charge against President Michel Temer to Congress on Wednesday, advancing the process under which the center-right leader could be removed from office to face trial for graft.
The justice, Edson Fachin, rejected an argument made by Brazil's top federal prosecutor that the Supreme Court should hear preliminary arguments on the charge and its merits for 15 days, before deciding whether to send it to the lower house of Congress.
Under Brazilian law, it is now up to the House of Deputies to decide whether to allow the Supreme Court to try Temer, who replaced impeached leftist President Dilma Rousseff last year. Two-thirds of the lower house must vote against Temer for his trial to occur.
The president was charged this week with arranging to receive 38 million reais ($11.55 million) in bribes from executives at JBS SA, the world's largest meat processor. [nL1N1JN1VN]
Temer branded the charge a "fiction" in a nationally televised address on Tuesday, even as he acknowledged that it could hurt the economy and hamper his government's plans for far-reaching reforms to help lift Latin America's biggest country out of a historic recession.
The Brazilian leader has repeatedly said he is innocent of any wrongdoing and has rejected calls from the opposition to resign. [nL1N1JO1SL]. He is caught up in a three-year anti-graft push by investigators that has revealed stunning levels of corruption in Latin America's largest country.
The schemes involve businesses paying billions of dollars in bribes to politicians and executives at state-run companies in return for winning contracts and various political favors.
Temer, one-third of his cabinet, four past presidents and dozens of lawmakers are either on trial, facing charges or under investigation for corruption. Over 90 people have been found guilty so far.
More corruption charges are expected to be made against Temer by Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot in the coming weeks. Each of those charges will require a vote by the full lower house on whether or not the president should face trial.
A vote on the first charge against Temer is expected to take place in three to four weeks.
If less than two-thirds of the house were to vote against the charge, it would be shelved. If two-thirds approved it, it would then go back to the Supreme Court, to decide whether it will take up the case.
Temer would immediately be suspended from office for 180 days if the court accepts the case, during which time House Speaker Rodrigo Maia would take the presidency.
Were Temer to be found guilty, Congress would appoint a caretaker president to serve out his term, which ends on Jan. 1, 2019.
($1 = 3.2893 reais)
(Reporting by Ricardo Brito; Additional reporting by Brad Brooks; Writing by Brad Brooks; Editing by Tom Brown)