Brazil's High Court Suspends Rousseff Foe as House Speaker

  • Cunha was suspended in vote of 11 to 0; he denies wrongdoing
  • Congressman led lower house efforts to impeach Rousseff

Brazil’s lower house speaker Eduardo Cunha, one of the most powerful politicians implicated in the country’s sprawling corruption scandal and a vocal critic of the government, was suspended from office Thursday.

The Supreme Court voted unanimously to suspend him as speaker and legislator, effective immediately. Cunha told reporters after the ruling that he won’t resign and will appeal the decision.

The high court upheld an injunction issued earlier in the day by Justice Teori Zavascki. His decision was based on a request made by the chief prosecutor Rodrigo Janot, who said Cunha used his position as speaker of the house to intimidate legislators, lawyers and defendants in a corruption investigation. Cunha said Thursday he’s done nothing to obstruct the probe. Only Congress can permanently remove him from office, and a lower house ethics panel has been considering the matter for months.

Cunha, who was pivotal in initiating impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff, has already been accused of money laundering in the two-year Carwash investigation, which is targeting corruption at state-run oil company Petrobras. He allegedly collected millions in kickbacks paid into Swiss accounts, according to an accusation sent to the Supreme Court. Cunha, 57, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Waldir Maranhao, an ally of Cunha, is next in line to take over as speaker of the house. Maranhao is also under investigation for graft. The congressman’s press office declined to comment when asked about the allegations.

Too Late

The timing of the Supreme Court decision may be too late to benefit Rousseff because the impeachment process moved from the lower house to the Senate last month. Cunha said the court’s decision was political retaliation for his role in trying to oust Rousseff.

The Senate committee on impeachment will vote Friday whether there there are grounds to put the president on trial for allegedly doctoring fiscal accounts. Its recommendation will go to the full Senate, which is scheduled to decide on May 11 whether to try the president. If a simple majority of the legislators vote against her -- as is widely expected -- she must step down for as long as 180 days and stand trial. In that case, Vice President Michel Temer would take over the top job.

"The president will be forced to step aside next Wednesday, God willing," Cunha said, speaking from the steps of his residence in Brasilia.

Attorney General Jose Eduardo Cardozo said he will ask the Supreme Court to annul efforts to oust the president. He says it’s now “very clear” that Cunha didn’t have the public’s interest at heart when he accepted the impeachment process against her last year and initiated proceedings.

Though Temer and Cunha are members of the same political party, the vice president won’t interfere in Supreme Court or congressional decisions regarding the legislator, according to one of his aides. Valor newspaper reported that Temer had counted on Cunha to help approve economic policies in Congress if Rousseff were to be impeached.

‘Tricky Quandary’

But in light of corruption allegations against Cunha, his removal from office will help Temer if he assumes the presidency, according to political analysts at Eurasia Group political consulting company.

"Cunha has been a long-standing ally of the VP, but his removal from the speakership eliminates an important liability for the incoming Temer administration," analysts Christopher Garman, Joao Augusto de Castro Neves and Cameron Combs wrote in a research note. "The Supreme Court resolved a very tricky quandary for Temer even before his term began."

The Supreme Court was scheduled to rule Thursday on a separate request to suspend Cunha from his leadership position. They decided to postpone that discussion. The motion, presented by the Sustainability Network political party, argues that Cunha shouldn’t be so close to becoming the country’s president in light of the corruption allegations against him. Under Brazilian law, the lower house speaker runs the country if the president and vice president both step down or leave office.

Brazilians celebrated on social media the removal of Cunha, who had been the target of protests in recent months. The expression “Tchau Querido,” or “Bye Dear” in English, was trending on Twitter in reference to the lawmaker.

An April 29 gallery opening in Rio de Janeiro’s richest neighborhood featured oil paintings of politicians ensnared by the corruption probe, with the portrait of Cunha creating the biggest buzz.

“He’s the most hated one,” Gabriel Giucci, the work’s author, told viewers. “So he becomes the most adored, as art.”

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