Brazilian President's adviser arrested in graft probe

Masks representing Brazil's 594 congressmen and President Michel Temer put up as a protest against political corruption at the Museum of Art in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Masks representing Brazil's 594 congressmen and President Michel Temer put up as a protest against political corruption at the Museum of Art in Sao Paulo, Brazil.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BRASILIA • A close adviser to Brazil's President Michel Temer has been arrested, police said, in the latest move in a corruption case that threatens to bring down his government.

Police filmed the aide, Rodrigo Rocha Loures, in March running from a Sao Paulo pizzeria parking lot to a taxi with a black suitcase containing 500,000 reais (S$212,500).

The judge who ordered Loures' incarceration is leading the Supreme Court's investigation into a sprawling pay-for-play corruption case at state oil giant Petrobras that has already swept up many in Brazil's political and business elite. It now threatens to bring down Mr Temer, who is fighting calls for his impeachment as prosecutors build a corruption and obstruction of justice case against him.

The President was drawn into the scandal last month with the release of an audio recording secretly made by an owner of the world's largest meat-packing company, Mr Joesley Batista, at a late-night March 7 meeting with Mr Temer at his residence.

In the recording, which Mr Temer says has been tampered with, the President allegedly gives the go-ahead for payments to buy the silence of a politician imprisoned in the Petrobras scandal, Eduardo Cunha, the former speaker of the Lower House. Mr Batista turned the audio recording over to prosecutors, and said Mr Temer had designated Loures to receive bribes in return for favours to the company.

Shortly after the Temer-Batista meeting, police filmed Loures with the bag full of money, which allegedly came from a contact at Mr Batista's JBS meat-packing company.

The scene has been played repeatedly on Brazilian television.

Mr Temer has staunchly defended Loures and did so again in an interview published last Saturday in the Veja news magazine. Loures may have been "the victim of a trap", Mr Temer said, describing the former congressman as "a very intelligent person, very capable, of a very prestigious family... who doesn't need money. He truly was a trusted adviser".

Commentators say that if Loures were to reach a plea bargain deal with prosecutors - as have many people caught up in the Petrobras scandal - it could mean the end for Mr Temer. People close to Loures say his wife wants him to cooperate and spill what he knows but other members of his family are opposed to this.

Mr Temer said in a separate interview, with the weekly IstoE, that he doubted Loures would try to reach a plea bargain and provide evidence against the President.

"First, because it would be false. Second, because I know him and see it unlikely he would do that," Mr Temer was quoted as saying.

The arrest comes days before another peril for Mr Temer - a trial centring on alleged illegal party financing in the 2014 election in which he was the running mate of Ms Dilma Rousseff, who ended up winning a second term. But Ms Rousseff was impeached and removed from office last year over budget irregularities and Mr Temer became President.

If the Supreme Electoral Tribunal annuls the election, it will also decide if Mr Temer must leave office immediately or can remain in power while appeals are filed. The trial is set to last three days but could go on longer. If Mr Temer leaves office for whatever reason, it is up to Congress to name a new acting president within 30 days. That person would serve out the remainder of the current presidential term till late next year.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 05, 2017, with the headline 'Brazilian President's adviser arrested in graft probe'. Print Edition | Subscribe