Brazil's top court suspends impeachment of Rousseff

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff gestures during a news conference after a meeting with jurists defending her against impeachment at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil December 7, 2015. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

By Anthony Boadle BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil's Supreme Court suspended impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff until it rules on the validity of a secret ballot that stacked a congressional committee with opponents seeking to oust the leftist leader. The ruling provided respite for Rousseff as she struggles to survive splits in her ruling coalition and fend off the effort to unseat her as well as dealing with a severe recession and a widening corruption investigation at state-run oil company Petrobras that has implicated many of her allies. Rousseff is not under investigation in the kickback scandal but her former point man in the Senate, Delcidio Amaral, in jail for allegedly obstructing the Petrobras probe, has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. That could lead to new revelations involving her ruling Workers' Party (PT). The decision by a Supreme Court judge late on Tuesday stopped the creation of the impeachment committee until the country's top court rules on Dec. 16 whether the secret ballot was valid. Justice Luiz Edson Fachin, who was appointed by Rousseff, said the impeachment process had to be suspended to avoid actions that might later be invalidated by the Supreme Court. The ruling could favor Rousseff by curbing the power of her political foe, lower house speaker Eduardo Cunha, who called a secret ballot to allow wavering members of Rousseff's coalition to back a pro-impeachment committee without public record. Cunha, who himself faces allegations of corruption, launched the impeachment proceedings last week based on an opposition accusation that the president violated budget laws with accounting tricks employed by her government to allow ramped up spending during her re-election campaign last year. Rousseff, in office since 2011, has denied wrong-doing and reiterated that on Wednesday at an event with supporters in Boa Vista, a northern town near the border with Venezuela where she handed out low-cost houses. "I did nothing wrong. There was no graft," Rousseff said, adding she was being impeached for spending too much on social programs. Many Brazilian want to see Rousseff go because they blame her for the worst recession in 25 years, which is being deepened by concern over the country's political future. Brazil came one step closer to losing its prized investment grade credit rating on Wednesday when Moody's Investors Service said it was studying a possible downgrade due to the deteriorating economy, widening fiscal deficit and increasing risks of political paralysis. Cunha faces several accusations of taking bribes on Petrobras contracts and stashing millions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts. He has denied the charges. The house ethics committee was due to vote on Wednesday on whether to investigate Cunha for lying about Swiss bank accounts, which could cost him his seat, but his backers delayed a decision with an injunction removing the committee's rapporteur. ROUSSEFF BASE WEAKENED In Tuesday's secret ballot, lawmakers voted 272-199 for a committee controlled by Rousseff's opponents and pro-impeachment members of the Cunha's centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), the biggest party in her coalition. The tumultuous session almost collapsed into chaos during an angry debate over the secret vote. According to Congresso em Foco, a prominent Brasilia watchdog group, a third of the lawmakers named on the committee are under investigation by the Supreme Court for corruption, money laundering, electoral fraud and other crimes. The injunction request at the Supreme Court was filed by the Communist Party of Brazil, a small but staunch Rousseff ally, adding to an earlier complaint by the party on the constitutional validity of the impeachment request. If an impeachment committee finds against Rousseff, the process will go to a full vote on the house floor, where the opposition needs two-thirds of the votes to begin a 180-day impeachment trial in the Senate. During that trial, Rousseff would be suspended and replaced by Vice President Michel Temer. Adding to Brazil's political crisis is a growing rift between Rousseff and her vice president, whose fractious PMDB party is divided over the impeachment of the president and moving closer to breaking away from her coalition. Temer told reporters in Brasilia that the procedure was legitimate. Tuesday's vote on the impeachment committee was a slap in the face for the PMDB leader in the lower house, Leonardo Picciani, an opponent of impeachment since Rousseff granted his faction two cabinet posts in October. In a setback for the president, the party replaced him on Wednesday with Leonardo Quintao, a congressman less sympathetic to her. "Removal of Picciani from the PMDB leadership hastens the dismantling of Rousseff's parliamentary base," said Senator Aloysio Nunes of the main opposition PSDB party. "She will end up with just the Workers' Party and the Communist Party." (Reporting by Maria Carolina Marcello, Anthony Boadle, Silvio Cascione and Reese Ewing; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Frances Kerry)