Brazilian justice suspends house speaker, foe of president

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil’s top court voted unanimously Thursday to suspend the scandal-tainted and controversial leader of the lower house of Congress from his duties.

Chamber of Deputies Speaker Eduardo Cunha, one of the most powerful politicians in Brazil, is accused of corruption and obstruction of justice. A nemesis of President Dilma Rousseff, Cunha began the impeachment case that now has the Senate considering whether to put her on trial.

Justice Teori Zavascki stripped Cunha of his duties early in the day, then the full court voted to back that move.

Cunha’s office issued a brief statement from the politician, but said he would hold a news conference later.

“There is no chance I will resign,” Cunha said. He has repeatedly denied wrongdoing in all the cases against him.

The court’s decision was based on a request made in December by chief prosecutor Rodrigo Janot.

Janot, who called Cunha “a criminal” in his accusation, alleges that the speaker used his position to obstruct investigations against him involving corruption at state-run oil giant Petrobras and at the lower house’s ethics committee.

Justice Luis Roberto Barroso said the decision to interfere in another branch of government was harsh, but needed. “I don’t want to live in a different country. I want to live in a different Brazil,” he said while casting his vote.

Outside the Supreme Court, fireworks erupted as the majority vote needed to suspend Cunha was reached.

In order Cunha’s suspension early in the day, Zavascki said that because the speaker is under investigation, he is unfit to be in line for the presidency should Rousseff be impeached. If the Senate accepts charges against the embattled leader next week, Vice President Michel Temer, an ally of Cunha’s, is set to take over. The speaker would be the next in line.

Cunha has been leading the effort to oust Rousseff over allegations she used budget tricks to hide government deficits that have contributed to the worst recession in decades for Latin America’s largest economy.

An impeachment measure passed overwhelmingly last month in the Chamber of Deputies and is now before the Senate. Cunha’s suspension has no direct impact on that vote.

Solicitor General Jose Eduardo Cardozo said Zavascki’s ruling will be the basis for a new appeal to the Supreme Court seeking to annul the impeachment process. Cardozo accuses Cunha of abusing his office to seek revenge against adversaries.

Speaking earlier at a dam inauguration in the Amazon state of Para, Rousseff called Cunha “shameless” for leading the impeachment process against her.

“Better late than never,” she said of his suspension.

While the decision might have come too late for supporters of Rousseff and her Worker’s Party, it’s sure to be celebrated in many circles.

“Cunha is the only person that brings Brazil together” in shared contempt, said Francisco Fonseca, a political analyst at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas think tank.

A poll by the respected Datafolha institute in April found 77 percent of Brazilians wanted Cunha to step down or be stripped of his mandate. That was even more than the percentage of Brazilians who wanted to see Rousseff (61 percent) or Temer (58 percent) impeached.

A group of Cunha-allied lawmakers signed a letter of support saying the speaker’s suspension caused “a great institutional crisis.” But other legislators celebrated suspension in a raucous session.

Besides obstruction of justice, Cunha is facing several corruption allegations, including accepting bribes and failing to declare foreign bank accounts containing millions of dollars.