Eduardo Cunha, the influential Brazilian politician who spearheaded the ouster of former president Dilma Rousseff and who for years seemed untouchable, has been arrested and jailed on corruption charges.
Mr. Cunha, who stands accused of salting away millions of dollars in bribes in foreign bank accounts, is emblematic of the traditional power brokers here, a wealthy leader of the largest political party who cut deals with all parties as he rose to lead the lower house of Congress.
He is the most powerful political figure to be jailed in the country’s reckoning with the corrupt practices that riddle its politics and major business deals.
Federal prosecutors say Mr. Cunha took $5-million (U.S.) in bribes from a firm that won contracts with the state oil company, Petrobras, and that he accepted bribes in connection with property developments in central Rio De Janeiro, for himself and for other members of his party.
Mr. Cunha denies all of the allegations and said in a statement released by his lawyers that his arrest was “absurd,” that prosecutors have no grounds and he would contest it.
In September, Mr. Cunha was forced out of his position as the speaker of the lower house and expelled from Congress, from which he orchestrated the impeachment of Ms. Rousseff a month before. When he lost his political mandate, he also lost the shield of legal protections that keep sitting Brazilian politicians from being tried anywhere but by the country’s Supreme Court.
Stripped of this shield, he became a target for Sergio Moro, the federal court judge in the central Brazilian city of Curitiba who oversees the sprawling investigation into government graft known as Lava Jato, or Car Wash.
“With the end of the ‘symbol of impunity’ that Cunha represented, there are no more guarantees: Anyone can be investigated, tried and imprisoned,” said Ricardo Wahrendorff Caldas, a professor of political science at the University of Brasilia. “There is no more security, even for politicians.”
Mr. Cunha was arrested in the capital, Brasilia, and has been transferred to the southern city of Curitiba. His wife and daughter are also under investigation in Lava Jato; police searched the family home in Rio on Wednesday.
Mr. Moro said he had ordered the arrest because “until there is full traceability of money, there is a greater risk that he will flee, since the accused could use illegal funds to facilitate his escape and taking of refuge abroad.” He added that the fact that Mr. Cunha has dual Brazilian and Italian citizenship increased the risk of him trying to evade justice, while his connections created the risk he might hamper investigations.
Mr. Cunha’s detention is indefinite, in theory until the conclusion of a trial, although it is so rare for someone this powerful to be jailed that many Brazilians fully expect that his legal team will have him released imminently.
Rafael Faria, a member of the criminal policy committee of the Brazilian Bar Association, said the grounds for arrest are dubious, given that Mr. Cunha is a high-profile figure who would be unable to flee the country unnoticed. He called it a political move rather than a legal one, and said the main goal of the indefinite detention was to try to force Mr. Cunha to become a state witness and provide evidence about other influential people.
As he was expelled from Congress, Mr. Cunha publicly vowed to expose the secrets of those who turned against him, saying he had information that would rock the political establishment. He promised a tell-all book, on sale by Christmas.
The columnist Natuza Nery wrote in Folha de Sao Paulo on Wednesday that Mr. Cunha may well open up his “master file” on the inner workings of Brasilia, even without a deal on sentence reduction.
“He’s not the type to go to the gallows alone,” she wrote.
But she quoted an investigator who said he would have to “spit blood” (that is, provide extremely valuable information) in order to get himself off the hook and noted that many prosecutors are uncomfortable with the idea of making “a deal with a devil.” Mr. Cunha is perhaps the most widely disliked figure in Brazilian politics.
Dozens of senior political figures and influential business people are under investigation in the Lava Jato probe, which centres on the state energy firm Petrobras. At least three business people have said in plea bargain testimony that they paid bribes into Mr. Cunha’s overseas accounts. In 2015, he vehemently denied to Congress that he had any such accounts. Swiss authorities then gave Brazilian prosecutors evidence that he and his wife, Claudia Cruz, held secret accounts containing $5-million there.
Prof. Caldas predicted that Mr. Cunha would try to cut a deal in order to protect his wife from jail time. “She is his weakness,” he said.
Ms. Rousseff and her supporters maintained throughout the impeachment process that Mr. Cunha was targeting her as a vendetta because she had refused to stop the corruption investigators from probing his affairs. He was a senior leader in the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), which was Ms. Rousseff’s key coalition ally.
Ms. Rousseff was replaced in office by her former vice-president, Michel Temer, also of the PMDB, who was once a close ally of Mr. Cunha’s. Many Brazilians anticipate that Mr. Cunha may reveal information on corrupt practices by Mr. Temer, who is also unpopular and also under investigation in connection with Lava Jato. The president cut short a trip to Japan on Wednesday and headed for Brasilia.
With a report from Elisangela MendoncaReport Typo/Error