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Former speaker of Brazil's Lower House of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, speaks in a session of the House as they debate his impeachment, in Brasilia, Brazil, September 12, 2016. (ADRIANO MACHADO/REUTERS)
Former speaker of Brazil's Lower House of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, speaks in a session of the House as they debate his impeachment, in Brasilia, Brazil, September 12, 2016. (ADRIANO MACHADO/REUTERS)

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Brazil’s top politician dumped from Congress Add to ...

Brazil’s lower house of Congress stripped its former speaker Eduardo Cunha, once the most powerful man in politics here, of his seat, and with it his protection from prosecution on corruption charges, in a heated debate that ended at midnight on Monday.

The house voted 450 to 10, with nine abstentions, to revoke Mr. Cunha’s mandate – a stunning fall for a man who seemed untouchable only a few months ago. He was nominally removed upon the recommendation of the house-ethics committee for having lied to Congress about having secret bank accounts in Switzerland. But the vote on Mr. Cunha’s fate was a reckoning with the breadth of corruption of which he stands charged, and the symbol he has become for rot among Brazil’s politicians.

“It’s a crushing result and it shows that his was a special interest group, that abandoned him and threw him to the lions,” said Paulo Teixeira, a Congress member from the Workers’ Party, after the vote. “It’s a historic day – Cunha is a great evil. But he didn’t write this page in Brazil’s history alone.”

Mr. Cunha, an economist turned evangelical Christian radio show host, faces a range of bribery charges, including one case now in court in which he is alleged to have received $5-million (U.S.) to advance a ship-building contract with the state oil firm Petrobras, which is the centre of the vast corruption investigation known as Lava Jato. Swiss authorities have confirmed he has $1.4-million in accounts in that country, a charge that he continued to deny on Monday.

“The presence of Eduardo Cunha as one of the people’s representatives is an outrage and makes a mockery” of citizens, the country’s largest newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo, said in an editorial before the vote. “His time, and, we hope, that of all his ilk, has come.”

Mr. Cunha was the chief architect of the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff, who was ousted on Aug. 31. He began that process last December in what her allies said, and most political observers agreed, was a clear act of vengeance because she did not shut down federal prosecutors investigating him and other political leaders.

Mr. Cunha is the first sitting politician to be charged in the case; 60 per cent of the 513 lower house members are currently under investigation for bribery or other offenses.

The house voted to suspend him in May, but he outlasted Ms. Rousseff, who has been replaced by her vice president, Michel Temer. Mr. Cunha succeeded in dragging the reckoning on his own future for 11 months, but failed in eleventh-hour attempts to delay Monday’s vote.

Speaking in his own defence, Mr. Cunha said he was being made the personal victim of Ms. Rousseff’s allies. “I am paying the price of having my mandate revoked because I allowed the impeachment process to go forward,” he said. “It’s the price I am paying for freeing Brazil from the PT [her Workers’ Party, in its Portuguese acronym.]”

Mr. Cunha is a deeply unpopular politician – a survey by a national polling firm earlier this year found 77 per cent of Brazilians thought he should lose his seat, compared to 63 per cent who thought the president must go – but he has long had an aura of political invincibility, because he was said to be the keeper of secrets in Brasilia. The Rio-based politician was a leader in the Brazil Democratic Movement Party (from which Mr. Temer also comes), a political organization that eschews ideology in favour of holding power. Mr. Cunha is a legendary dealmaker who cultivated a conservative block of Congress members (who voted with him against Ms. Rousseff), reportedly by using off-book funds to get them elected.

But Brazil will hold municipal elections in October, and 50 members of the lower house are running to be mayor or city-council members – that, and a strong herd mentality in politics here, prompted house members to desert Mr. Cunha en masse.

“Tomorrow, it might be any of you,” he told the House before the vote. Leaving Congress in the early hours of Tuesday, he stopped to speak to reporters and deliver a last veiled threat, saying he planned to write a book that would contain “all the conversations” he had during the impeachment, adding, “I have a very good memory.”

With his mandate gone, Mr. Cunha loses the parliamentary immunity that has staved off criminal proceedings until now. His case now goes to the activist federal judge Sergio Moro, who has shown a fondness for making dramatic arrests of high-profile figures.

Mr. Cunha’s wife and daughter are also under investigation for corruption. Prosecutors have leaked credit-card statements showing that Mr. Cunha and his family spent $40,000 (U.S.) on a nine-day family holiday in Miami in 2013; his wife Claudia Cunha spent $59,000 on tennis lessons, and they had a fleet of luxury cars, some registered to the company Jesus.com – even as he reported an annual household income of $120,000. Brazil’s prosecutor-general, Rodrigo Janot, has called Mr. Cunha a “delinquent” and asked for his arrest.

Mr. Cunha also blamed President Temer for having a role in his ouster, which suggests their one-time alliance may be finished – and that there may be more turmoil ahead in Brazil. The new president is also under investigation for bribery, as are most of his top lieutenants, who were once close to Mr. Cunha.

Judge Moro’s corruption investigation has made wide-ranging use of a relatively new law allowing accused criminals to co-operate with police in exchange for lighter sentences. The plea bargains of other former politicians have driven the case forward. Brazilian pundits love to speculate about a possible Cunha deal, calling it “the mother lode” of plea bargains.

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