World

Brazil judges clash over evidence in case against president

Judges on Brazil's top electoral court argued on Wednesday whether to accept new evidence of alleged illegal campaign contributions that stem from a sweeping probe of graft in Latin America's largest nation as they consider a case that could force President Michel Temer from office.

The ruling on revelations from recent plea bargains would be a strong indication of how the court is leaning, and Wednesday's testy debate showed sharp divisions between the judges who appear to favor accepting the damaging revelations and those who oppose. The latter camp includes Superior Electoral Tribunal President Gilmar Mendes, who has called the president whose political fate he is deciding "a friend of decades."

At issue is whether the 2014 campaign of Temer, then vice president, and former President Dilma Rousseff received illegal financing. If the court finds it did, Temer could be removed from office, adding further to the country's corruption-fueled political turmoil.

Defense attorneys argue that evidence in the case was submitted long ago, and say the court shouldn't be able to consider new revelations that emerged from plea bargains by 77 executives at the huge construction company Odebrecht, one of the businesses at the center of a sprawling investigation into kickbacks and bribes at the state-run oil company Petrobras.

The testimony describes myriad details of alleged bribes to many politicians as well as millions of dollars of illegal money that allegedly went into the coffers of the Rousseff-Temer ticket.

Judge Herman Benjamin, who was named by the court to examine the case, argued that the plea bargains were a crucial part of the investigation. He also said that Odebrecht's role in the investigation and plea bargains was well known, and thus it was impossible to argue it had all come out of nowhere.

Meanwhile Mendes, who in the past has sided with politicians facing legal troubles, said that using Odebrecht plea bargain testimony would represent the latest overreach in the so-called "Car Wash" investigation.

He also said allegations that tens of millions of dollars were put illegally into campaign coffers meant that the electoral system needed to be reformed — subtly arguing against punishing politicians for having to operate in a flawed process.

The court adjourned in the early afternoon, with plans to take up the question Thursday morning.

Both Rousseff, 69, and Temer, 76, have denied wrongdoing. The current president has vowed to continue in office despite many calls for him to resign and approval ratings around 8 percent.

If at least four of the seven judges vote to allow the testimonies, Temer would be one step closer to being pushed out of office, following the path of Rousseff, who was impeached and removed last year for illegally managing the government's budget.

If the court rules against them, Rousseff could lose her right to hold office for eight years.

The trial was expected to take at least three days, and there is no deadline for a final ruling. It is the first time in Brazil's history that a sitting president has risked having the job taken away by the electoral court.

The suit was brought after the 2014 election by the right-leaning Brazilian Social Democracy Party, whose presidential candidate, Aecio Neves, lost to the Rousseff-Temer ticket.

Ironically, the party has been a key ally of Temer since he replaced Rousseff.

If the court decides against the Rousseff-Temer ticket, Temer's mandate would be annulled and Congress would have to pick someone to serve out his term through December 2018. The embattled president has said he would appeal.

If Temer should be forced from the presidency by the court, or decided to resign, Chamber of Deputies Speaker Rodrigo Maia would take over for 30 days while Congress votes in a new leader.

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Follow Peter Prengaman at twitter.com/peterprengaman