SAO PAULO – Brazilian President Michel Temer was charged with obstruction of justice and leading a criminal organization on Thursday, another blow to the embattled leader and the stability of Latin America’s largest nation.
In widely expected filings to the country’s top court, Attorney General Rodrigo Janot accused Temer’s Brazilian Democratic Movement Party of receiving nearly $190 million in bribes in a scheme to trade in political favors and influence.
“Temer gave the needed stability and security to the criminal apparatus, appearing at the same time as the leader and foundation of the organization,” Janot said in the indictment.
He also accused Temer of instigating the payment of hush money to jailed former Speaker Eduardo Cunha and to a political operator — both of whom he allegedly feared could give damning evidence on him.
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As a sitting president, Temer will only be put on trial if two-thirds of Brazil’s lower house votes to suspend him from office.
In a written statement, Temer called the indictment “filled with absurdities.”
“The Attorney General continues his irresponsible march to cover up his own failings,” the note said.
His party also rejected the accusations.
The charges are the latest bombshell in Brazil’s sprawling corruption investigation, which began as a probe into money laundering and ended up uncovering systemic graft in Brazil’s halls of power.
Janot alleged Wednesday that Brazil’s government was essentially run like a cartel for years — beginning during the administration of Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — as money was doled out in exchange for votes or plush political appointments. Temer only became the leader of that criminal organization when he took power last year after President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed from office, Janot said.
Janot alleged that, before Temer took power, members of his party sought put a stop to the corruption investigation. When they failed, Janot said, they decided to withdraw their support for Rousseff and seek her impeachment — presumably because they thought putting one of their own in the presidential palace would offer them some protection.
Janot said that the participants should pay $17 million in fines.
“Brazil has never witnessed a crisis of this proportion,” said Bar Association Chairman Claudio Lamachia. “But state institutions have been rigid and aware in fulfilling their mission.”
Along with Temer, eight others were charged. Two are senior members of his Cabinet: his chief of staff, Eliseu Padilha, and Secretary-General Wellington Moreira Franco. The other six, including businessmen and politicians, are already in jail, underscoring how far the investigation has already spread.
In fact, this is the second time Temer has been charged this year, but in August lawmakers refused to allow the previous bribery charge to move forward.
And Temer could still face yet more charges: The Supreme Court has authorized prosecutors to investigate whether he accepted bribes in exchange for political favors to a company that operates at the port of Santos.
Many Brazilians have hailed as heroes the investigators, prosecutors and judges who have led the probe, but others have accused them of zealotry and some have reservations about the extensive use of plea bargain agreements, a relatively new tool in Brazil.
Among the most spectacular of those agreements was the one signed by Joesley Batista, former chairman of JBS, the world’s largest meatpacker. Batista received immunity from prosecution in exchange for giving damning testimony about Temer’s involvement in bribery and cover-up schemes.
But Janot has since raised questions about whether Batista withheld information, and on Wednesday he said he was revoking Batista’s deal and charging him with impeding the investigation.
Batista’s lawyer, Antonio Carlos de Almeida Castro, called the charge “disloyal,” saying Janot was penalizing his client for coming forward.
While Temer still has significant support in Congress, as his victory over the first indictment showed, he is extremely unpopular among voters — creating a rocky road ahead for Brazil, even if Temer avoids a trial.
“This is a very uncertain moment…. Temer has many friends in Congress, and it is Congress that will vote,” said Fabiano Angelico, transparency and politics consultant based in Sao Paulo. “But the accusation is very serious. Uruguay’s vice-president resigned for much less a couple of weeks ago.”
Brazil’s economy has only just returned to growth after a two-year recession, and voters go to the polls next year, so many lawmakers are calculating how best to hold onto their own seats in Congress.
“Brazil is in a difficult moment now,” said Angelico. “The old order has not fallen and the new order is yet to be born.”
Wednesday’s charges came hours after authorities raided the home of Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi as part of an investigation into whether he bribed state lawmakers during his 2003-2010 terms as governor of Mato Grosso.
Police also raided offices of eight state lawmakers and the mayor of the state capital, Cuiaba, in connection with the case.
Maggi, who is one of Brazil’s wealthiest agro-business leaders and is known as the king of soybeans, denied any wrongdoing in his political or business dealings.