Corruption Probes Target Nine Brazilian Ministers


Brazil's corruption crisis struck the heart of President Michel Temer's government Tuesday with the opening of probes into up to nine ministers and scores of lawmakers.

What Brazilian media called "the bomb" and even "the atomic bomb" landed when the Supreme Court authorized probes against 108 politicians in the already giant "Car Wash" investigation.

They ranged from ministers to senior senators, at least four former presidents and Rio de Janeiro's mayor during the Olympics.

All are suspected of involvement in a massive embezzlement and bribery conspiracy that fleeced state oil company Petrobras and funneled dirty money into leading political parties' election war chests.

The so-called Car Wash investigation has already been running three years.

But the new probes -- which are not criminal charges -- mark a dramatic surge in the legal onslaught. They also threaten the stability of Temer's deeply unpopular government just as he struggles to enact austerity measures in a bid to pull Brazil out of a historic recession.

Supreme Court documents showed that nine ministers were on the list of targeted politicians. They included Temer's influential chief of staff Eliseu Padilha, newly appointed Foreign Minister Aloysio Nunes and Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi.

Conflicting Brazilian media reports on the list, which first appeared as a surprise leak in Estadao newspaper, suggested that the final number of ministers could go down to eight.

In addition, the Supreme Court authorized probes against the Rio and Sao Paulo state governors, 29 senators and at least 40 members of the lower house of Congress. Among the lawmakers were the speakers of the upper and lower houses.

The Supreme Court handles all cases involving sitting politicians and was responding to a March request by top prosecutor Rodrigo Janot to open the cases.

- Four former presidents -

But also on Janot's list, then passed on by the Supreme Court to lower courts, were many major figures no longer in office.

They included three former presidents: Fernando Henrique Cardoso, leftist icon Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his successor Dilma Rousseff. A fourth former president, Fernando Collor de Mello, will be probed under Supreme Court jurisdiction because he is now a senator.

Brazilian media reports said that a fifth, Jose Sarney, was also on the list.

The former mayor of Rio de Janeiro during last year's Olympics, Eduardo Paes, was on the list. He is alleged to have taken some 15 million reais ($4.8 million) in bribes.

The allegations on Janot's list are based on a deluge of testimony given in connection with plea bargains struck with 77 former executives of the giant Odebrecht construction firm, which was at the heart of the Petrobras scheme.

The former Odebrecht employees, including ex-CEO Marcelo Odebrecht, have confessed to systemic bribery of politicians in exchange for inflated contracts with Petrobras and favorable legislation in Congress. The money went either directly into politicians' pockets or into party campaign slush funds.

Odebrecht paid so many big bribes to so many politicians, executives say, that they set up a company department to manage the money.

- Unpopular Temer -

The presidency's only reaction to the bombshell late Tuesday was that "it does not comment on ongoing investigations."

But speculation is mounting over the fallout facing Temer's center-right government.

Temer, pushing for painful economic reforms as Brazil enters its third year of recession, already faces questions over his legitimacy.

He took over last year from Rousseff after she was impeached for illegal handling of government finances. She claims she was victim of a coup.

Several of Temer's ministers have already had to resign due to involvement in the Car Wash scandal.

The Supreme Court is so far only authorizing investigations and Temer has already said he will not sack any minister who had not been formally charged with a crime.

But the probes further discredit Temer's ruling PMDB party, with its senior senator Romero Juca, among those on the list.

Also targeted is Aecio Neves, who heads the centrist PSDB party and narrowly lost Brazil's last presidential election.

The huge scandal has already claimed a host of big politicians and business figures.

Lula, who founded the Workers' Party and was president during much of the period that the Petrobras scheme was underway, already faces multiple Car Wash probes.

Rousseff was president during the tail end of the Petrobras scheme's period.