CONFLICTS

Brazil's top court opens probes into 9 government ministers

Brazil's Supreme Court announced on Tuesday that it has opened corruption investigations into nine government ministers and dozens more top politicians in a sweeping decision that affects one third of embattled President Michel Temer's Cabinet and many of his top allies.

In total, 108 people will be investigated following Justice Edson Fachin's ruling, which was itself the product of more than 74 probes involving plea bargain deals and testimony from former and current executives of construction giant Odebrecht.

The list of the names of the investigated was obtained by The Associated Press. The targets include Presidential Chief of Staff Eliseu Padilha, Lower House speaker Rodrigo Maia, Senate president Eunicio Oliveira, foreign minister Aloysio Nunes, agriculture minister Blairo Maggi, industry minister Marcos Pereira, and former Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes, among others. Also being investigated are the heads of the two major parties in Temer's coalition.

The seal on the investigations was lifted, but the content of the accusations has yet to be published by Brazil's top court.

All the politicians have denied any wrongdoing. Temer has temporary immunity from prosecution because Brazilian presidents can only be charged for crimes they committed during their term in office.

After authorizing the investigations, Brazil's attorney-general will proceed with them and later decide whether the accused should stand trial. Temer said recently that any ministers standing trial should step down from their Cabinet posts.

The judge's decision comes as Brazil's president tries to survive an electoral court trial that could remove him from office for illegal campaign financing. He is also trying to pass tough austerity measures and reforms through Congress. All this while polls show his approval rating plunging to as low as 10 percent.

As soon as the list came out, lawmakers left Brazil's Congress and avoided reporters; a key vote to help financially strapped state governments was canceled.

The head of Brazil's bar association celebrated the Supreme Court's announcement, but warned against considering all the accused guilty from the start.

"These plea bargains include statements from people who pleaded guilty and offered to help authorities. It is still necessary to verify the authenticity of their statements," Claudio Lamachia said.

Brazil's top court investigates politicians who hold office because of its special jurisdiction and is often slower than lower courts go after senior figures.

Justice Fachin also sent 201 investigations to lower courts for judges there to decide whether the investigations should proceed. In that list, he included three former Brazilian presidents: Dilma Rousseff, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The accusations against them have also not been released.

Fachin also decided that nine state governors would have their investigations analyzed by another top court. In that list he included Sao Paulo governor and presidential hopeful Geraldo Alckmin and Rio's Luiz Fernando Pezao.

Executives of other construction companies are also negotiating plea bargain deals that could further impact Brazilian politicians.

Odebrecht and state oil giant Petrobras are at the center of a wide-ranging investigation into kickbacks and inflated contracts at state companies. The probe has ensnared dozens of high-level politicians and executives, and has grown into the biggest graft investigation in the country's history, shocking even the most cynical of Brazilians for the scale of corruption it has revealed. Prosecutors have relied heavily on plea bargains with defendants to make cases against others.

The scandal has even become a regional issue, with justice systems in other countries accusing local officials of taking bribes from the construction giant. Odebrecht has acknowledged paying almost $800 million in bribes across Latin America.