SAO PAULO — Embattled President Michel Temer vowed Wednesday that Brazil's government would forge ahead with its work despite a bombshell announcement that corruption investigations have been opened into eight of his ministers, both leaders of Congress and numerous top allies.
Brazil's Supreme Court announced late Tuesday that it had ordered probes into around 100 top politicians as part of the largest corruption scandal in Brazil's history. The investigation, known as Operation Car Wash, has already unveiled billions of dollars in kickbacks and bribes paid to politicians by Brazilian companies, including the construction giant Odebrecht. It now threatens to derail Temer's administration and bring Congress to a standstill.
The numbers in Tuesday's decision were staggering: Investigations have been opened into 24 senators — one of whom is a former president of Brazil — 39 congressional deputies, eight Cabinet ministers and three governors.
Brazil's highest court also asked lower courts to decide whether to proceed with investigations of 200 other politicians — including three former presidents. The evidence in the cases comes from plea bargain testimony by current and former Odebrecht employees.
Given that nearly a third of his Cabinet is affected, there are concerns that the probe could endanger Temer's push for social security and labour law reforms he says are critical to restoring economic growth after two years in recession.
Temer himself was mentioned in some of the judge's decisions to open investigations, but as president, he has temporary immunity for any crimes committed before he took office.
While the announcement Tuesday night sent lawmakers scattering ahead of a holiday weekend, Temer maintained a regular schedule Wednesday as he tried to brush aside the scandal.
"We have to move forward with government," he said during a ceremony to sign a measure promoting women's advancement. "If we are not careful, soon people will say the executive (branch) is not working, the legislative (branch) is not working, the judicial (branch) is not working. It's not like that."
He did not mention the scandal explicitly, but when asked about it later by reporters, he replied, "I will let the judiciary work."
Brazil's attorney general will now investigate the accusations and decide whether the accused should stand trial. Temer said recently that any ministers standing trial should step aside. For now, all have denied wrongdoing.
But the taint of investigation may make life difficult for the government, especially since some of those under investigation are very close to Temer, including the president's chief of staff and right-hand man, Eliseu Padilha. According to plea bargain testimony, Padilha asked for a kickback worth around $1 million on a contract to build a train line in the city of Porto Alegre.
Odebrecht executives also said Padilha and another minister and close Temer adviser, Wellington Moreira Franco, requested illegal campaign financing for their Brazilian Democratic Movement Party and Temer in exchange for a government decision to raise the chances that the company would win airport concessions.
Yet another close ally of Temer, Foreign Minister Aloysio Nunes, will be investigated following allegations he received $158,000 in illegal campaign contributions in exchange for helping Odebrecht in its dealings with a state infrastructure company.
Prosecutors will investigate whether Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi received $3.8 million in campaign contributions from Odebrecht when he was running for governor of Mato Grosso state.
Many of the ministers have said they only received only legal contributions or that they hadn't seen the evidence against them.
"I regret that my name has been included in a list of people cited in Odebrecht plea bargains, without me having any possibility of accessing the information to defend myself," Maggi said in a statement. "I have a calm conscience that I did nothing wrong."
Nunes, meanwhile, called the accusations "untruthful."
Rodrigo Maia, speaker of the lower chamber of Congress, will also be investigated for receiving bribes, including in the form of illegal campaign contributions. The judge's decision says Maia is accused, among other things, of receiving around $110,000 in campaign funding from Odebrecht in 2008 — a year he wasn't running for office.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, will investigate allegations that Senate President Eunicio Oliveira received $635,000 from Odebrecht as part of a multi-million dollar scheme involving several lawmakers to effectively buy legislation favourable to the company.
Both have denied wrongdoing.
Pedro Campos, a History Professor at Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de Janeiro specialized in the relationship between constructors and public authorities, believes the number of politicians at risk proves that Brazil's political system has been contaminated with corruption for decades.
"Everyone knew this was happening, but we didn't know how extensive it is," Campos said. "But take heed: whatever Odebrecht did here, it could have done in other countries, with other leaders. One of their top executives once famously said that everything that they do in Brazil, they do abroad too."
As part of Justice Edson Fachin's decision to open the investigations, he lifted the seal on the plea bargain testimony. All of Brazil has been bracing for months to hear the nitty gritty of who gave what to whom, and they began to get a taste of it as the court started releasing the recordings.
In a recording released Wednesday, for instance, Odebrecht's former CEO, Marcelo Odebrecht, testified that, as Dilma Rousseff was assuming the presidency, he put aside at least $11 million earmarked for former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. The money, Odebrecht said, was supposed to buy him favour in the new government since Silva and Rousseff were close allies.
It was unclear, however, if the money was ever used by Silva, and his Lula Institute put out a statement saying the accusation was unfounded.
Savarese reported from Rio de Janeiro.
Sarah Dilorenzo And Mauricio Savarese, The Associated Press