Saturday 21 April 2018

Brazil minister steps aside over 'corruption plot' recording

Romero Juca at a press conference about a leaked phone recording at his offices in Brasilia (AP)
Romero Juca at a press conference about a leaked phone recording at his offices in Brasilia (AP)

A minister in Brazil's new government has taken a leave of absence after he was secretly recorded apparently plotting to oust the former president in a bid to stall a huge corruption probe.

Planning minister Romero Juca is under investigation in the multibillion-pound kickback scheme at state oil company Petrobras.

Even some allies of acting president Michel Temer called for the firing or resignation of Mr Juca, who is also a senator, who seems in the recording to be plotting how to remove Dilma Rousseff.

Mr Juca initially said he would remain in office only to announce a few hours later that he was taking a leave of absence.

Ms Rousseff, Brazil's first female president, was suspended from office by the Senate earlier this month for allegedly using accounting tricks to hide deficits in the budget to bolster support for her embattled government. She has repeatedly said she did nothing wrong.

"This shows the true reason behind the coup against our democracy and president Rousseff's mandate," tweeted Ricardo Berzoini, former minister of political relations who lost his post when Ms Rousseff was suspended.

"Their objective is to stop the Petrobras probe, to sweep the investigations under the rug."

Mr Temer, who was vice president, took over after distancing himself from Mr Rousseff and whipping up votes in Congress for her suspension. He will remain in power while the Senate conducts a trial.

The day began with a published transcript of a conversation between Mr Juca and Sergio Machado, a former senator who until recently headed another state oil company, Transpetro.

Soon after the transcripts were published by the newspaper Folha de S Paulo, Mr Juca called a news conference and said his comments had been taken out of context.

He said he was not pushing to impeach Ms Rousseff, but rather noting that things would be different under a different government, especially in Brazil's struggling economy.

By the afternoon, the newspaper posted on its website the hour-plus recorded conversation broken up into two parts. Mr Juca never mentions the economy.

The recording is sure to deepen Brazil's political crisis. Rousseff supporters and the president herself have long argued her administration was the victim of a coup orchestrated by opposition politicians, in large part to dilute the Petrobras investigation.

Over the last two years, dozens of the country's elite, from MPs to wealthy businessmen, have been tried and jailed in a probe so large that it has shocked even Brazilians long inured to graft in politics.

Ms Rousseff's popularity was hit by the investigation. Much of the alleged wrongdoing took place while her Workers' Party was in power over the last 13 years, though she herself has never been implicated.

Although she was hurt politically by the probe, Ms Rousseff refused to do anything to tamper with an investigation that she said Brazil badly needs.

The leaked recording was of a March meeting at Mr Juca's house, weeks before Brazil's lower Chamber of Deputies voted to send the impeachment measure to the Senate.

In the conversation, Mr Juca said he wanted to keep Judge Sergio Moro out of the Petrobras investigations related to him, others in Mr Temer's inner circle and Senate President Renan Calheiros.

"We have to solve this. We have to change the government so the bleeding is stopped," Mr Juca said in the recording, according to the newspaper account.

Mr Juca initially said the "bleeding" to which he referred had to do with Brazil's economy, which is expected to contract nearly 4% this year after an equally dismal 2015.

He denied trying to stop the Petrobras probe.

A few hours later, Mr Juca said he would take a leave of absence.

"I don't want these manipulations to harm this new administration," he said.

Some of Mr Temer's allies were quick to say Mr Juca should be fired only 12 days after being sworn in.

Press Association

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