BRAZIL

Brazil’s former house speaker arrested on corruption charges

Eduardo Cunha, instrumental in the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, has spent his first day in custody

Eduardo Cunha in a 2015 file photo.
Eduardo Cunha in a 2015 file photo.

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Eduardo Cunha, a once-powerful political figure who was speaker of Brazil’s lower house until May, was arrested on Wednesday near his official residence in Brasilia.

Cunha, 58, was flown to a penitentiary in Curitiba on corruption charges relating to a massive bribes-for-contracts scandal at Petrobras, the state-owned oil company.

The judge investigating the Petrobras case also ordered a freeze on 220 million reales (€73 million) from Cunha’s bank accounts.

The veteran Cunha could be a source of compromising information for the ruling party

Cunha is the politician who triggered and later guided the impeachment process against Dilma Rousseff, who was replaced on August 31 by Cunha’s mentor, the conservative Michel Temer of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB).

Many in Brazil believe that Cunha’s actions against Rousseff, of the leftist Workers’ Party (PT), were guided by a desire for personal revenge. On September 12, an overwhelming congressional majority stripped him of his deputy’s seat, a move that also took away his legal immunity from the courts.

Less than two months after the impeachment, Rousseff is out of the president’s office and Cunha is spending his first day behind bars after Judge Sergio Moro issued an arrest warrant against him.

Prosecutors justified the decision to hold him in detention by calling Cunha a flight risk because of his well-padded foreign bank accounts and his dual Brazilian-Italian citizenship. Investigators believe that Cunha may have attempted to destroy evidence that could be used against him.

Cunha, an Evangelical pastor who owns numerous websites featuring the word “Jesus,” began his own personal decline on May 5, when the Federal Supreme Court temporarily removed him from the speaker’s position in the lower house in connection with accusations of corruption and money laundering.

Cunha and his family took an eight-day trip to Miami that cost $43,000

Until that day, Cunha had been the most powerful and influential person in all of Brasilia along with then-President Rousseff (and perhaps even more so).

In early July, a teary-eyed Cunha announced his definitive resignation as speaker of the lower house. But he still held on to his deputy’s seat, which afforded him some degree of legal immunity. By then, he was already the most unpopular politician in the country – considered brilliant and hardworking but also Machiavellian and cynical.

For months, prosecutors had been accusing him of holding over $5 million in Swiss bank accounts from bribes he took in the Petrobras scandal. He always denied the claims despite documentary evidence showing his own signature.

Investigators released information about the way Cunha and his family lived off this money: an eight-day trip to Miami that cost $43,000, expensive tennis classes for his wife, a $5,400 bill for one day of shopping at the Chanel boutique in New York, and more.

Now President Temer has a member of his own party in prison on the same charges affecting many PT politicians: chiefly, accepting bribes from big companies and using their influence to get the latter Petrobras contracts.

And there is an added danger for Temer: prisoners can get reduced sentences if they cooperate with authorities by providing useful information. And the veteran Cunha could be a source of compromising information for the PMDB and possibly for the president himself.

English version by Susana Urra.

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