Brazilian Police Sweep Targets Lower House Chief and Allies

  • Police searches are part of a wider corruption investigation
  • Cunha is spearheading impeachment proceedings against Rousseff

Brazilian police raided the residence and office of lower house president Eduardo Cunha in Brasilia early Tuesday, as part of a corruption probe that is hitting at the core of the political and business establishment. 

The Federal Police said in a statement they are carrying out 53 search-and-seizure orders in the nation’s capital and other states as part of a broader probe into politicians’ links to a scheme of kickbacks at state oil company Petrobras. The warrants ordered by Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki aim to prevent the destruction of evidence and to impound property that was illegally obtained, according to the statement.

The police sweep on Tuesday is the latest twist in a drama where Cunha and President Dilma Rousseff are fighting for their political survival as the country’s largest corruption scandal, known as Carwash, rattles political leaders and deepens a recession. The raids that also targeted other members of Cunha’s PMDB party, which partially backs an impeachment of Rousseff, could favor the president, said political analyst David Fleischer.

"These first few weeks of December have rocked the republic," said Fleischer, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Brasilia. "Today’s development could be seen as an attempt to cower and contain the PMDB, which holds the balance in the impeachment process."

Ethics Probe

The police searches came only hours before the lower house ethics committee voted to push ahead with a probe against Cunha on allegations he lied to Congress. Cunha, who has denied wrongdoing, on Tuesday questioned the timing of the police action and said there is "no way" he will step down.

The presence of police in Cunha’s house is an embarrassment for the country and his permanence in office an offense to the nation, the Party of Socialism and Freedom said in a statement. It along with four other parties will ask the Supreme Court to remove Cunha as house speaker.

The federal government hopes the probe into cabinet members and other authorities will bring clarity as soon as possible and that the process will strengthen Brazilian institutions, according to a statement from Rousseff’s press office.

The share of Brazilians who consider her administration bad or terrible hit a new record of 70 percent, according to an Ibope poll published by the National Industry Confederation on Tuesday. Her personal approval rating remained unchanged from September at 14 percent.

Impeachment Proceedings

Cunha, as head of the lower house, started impeachment proceedings against the president earlier this month. He is a self-declared opponent of Rousseff, even though his PMDB is the biggest party in the ruling coalition. As house speaker, he sets the agenda of votes in the chamber and can influence the impeachment proceedings that may culminate with Rousseff’s ouster.

Brazil’s currency swung between gains and losses as investors sought to balance the short-term risks of further instability with prospects that the anti-corruption drive eventually could clean up politics. The real lost 0.3 percent to 3.8855 per dollar at 15:37 p.m.

Brazilians awoke Tuesday morning to live TV images of armed police in combat gear raiding Cunha’s residence in Brasilia. Police also searched for evidence at the houses of cabinet members and legislators linked to the lower house president. They also combed through Cunha’s offices in the Chamber of Deputies.  The Federal Prosecutor’s press office said by phone it wouldn’t comment on the operation.

Prosecutors pressed charges against Cunha in August, accusing him of receiving at least $5 million in a kickback scheme at Petrobras. On Sept. 30, prosecutors said Swiss authorities had transferred to Brazil documents from a money-laundering probe against Cunha. The documents indicate he and his family members allegedly hold accounts in Swiss banks.

Brazil’s Supreme Court on Wednesday will weigh in on the political crisis when it meets to decide on the legality of the impeachment request and proceedings so far.

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