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Brazil’s House Speaker Faces Charges Within the Massive Petrobras Kickback Probe

The upcoming trial of Eduardo Cunha for allegedly accepting bribes could weaken moves to impeach Dilma Rousseff, though the beleaguered president is by no means out of the woods.
Fernando Bizerrra Jr./EPA

The speaker of the lower house of Brazil's congress — a notoriously machiavellian politician who last year opened the way for the possible impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff — is now facing charges of corruption and money laundering.

The supreme court ruled on Thursday to accept the charges against Eduardo Cunha brought by the attorney general's office and related to alleged bribes of $5 million dollars in the purchase of two drill ships for the state-controlled oil company Petrobras.


Petrobras is at the center of Brazil's biggest ever corruption probe known as Lava Jato, or Operation Car Wash, which began in 2014.

Though dozens of other politicians have also been arrested and investigated, Cunha is the first to face charges in the supreme court. This is because he is the first defendant with so-called "privileged jurisdiction," meaning he will be tried in a superior court because of the importance of his political position.

"Analysis of the case shows that there is robust evidence for partly accepting the complaint," said Teori Zavascki, supreme court minister, in reading his vote.

While Zavascki rejected the claim that the speaker was involved in the beginning of the business negotiations over the two ships between 2006 and 2007, he said there were signs that Cunha later pressured contractors for bribes from 2010.

Cunha has denied all the allegations.

"I'm absolutely calm because I have the truth, I am innocent," he told reporters while voting was under way in the supreme court. "I have nothing to worry about. Becoming a defendant is not sentencing anyone."

Related: Brazil Opens Impeachment Proceedings Against President Rousseff

Cunha's prosecution is the latest twist in a political scandal that has become a real life House of Cards.

Often described as Brazil's Frank Underwood, Cunha was responsible for greenlighting impeachment proceedings against President Rousseff in December.


At the time, many commentators saw this as an act of revenge for Rousseff's Workers' Party colleagues backing an ethics investigation into accusations that he lied to a parliamentary inquiry into Petrobras about holding Swiss bank accounts. He is also facing separate charges over the alleged secret bank accounts as well as accusations he took other bribes of 52 million Brazilian reals ($13 million) related to regeneration work in Rio de Janeiro.

In the early hours of Wednesday, the ethics board voted to continue the case against Cunha for allegedly lying to an inquiry. Both the ethics board and the supreme court could now require Cunha to stand down as speaker. He will not, however, lose his congressional seat unless and until he is found guilty by the court, or ruled unethical by the board.

The upcoming trial of Cunha should, theoretically, strengthen Rousseff's chances of overcoming the impeachment process that continues to shadow her mandate.

Eduardo Valle, government relations consultant at Speyside Corporate Relations consultancy firm, said there was a close link between the weakening of Cunha and the potential waning of the impeachment process.

"This is a major debate and he has a lot of traction in that debate as president of the House of Representatives," Valle said. "He will keep his mandate as a congressman but of course, politically, he will be more fragile and more exposed."


But Cunha's problems may end up providing only a limited respite for the beleaguered president, who is once again facing a swelling campaign against her from other quarters.

João Santana, the former Workers' Party spin doctor, was arrested last week on suspicion of receiving bribes as part of the Lava Jato investigation. Justice minister and close Rousseff ally, José Eduardo Cardozo, also left his position, as the probe appeared to be closing in on the party.

Meanwhile, there are more pro-impeachment protests planned across the country next week, which have the support of opposition parties.

"There are many other factors at play than just Cunha," Valle said, stressing that the impeachment process could be long and dynamics can shift along the way. "There are signs that Dilma is losing her grasp, she's becoming isolated."

Related: The Nemesis of Brazil's Beleaguered President Is Now the One Feeling the Heat

Follow Donna Bowater on Twitter: @DonnaBow