A Brazilian senator who had a key role in the drive to oust president Dilma Rousseff has been caught in a secret recording in which he appears to say impeaching her is the best way to shut down a high-profile corruption probe. The conversation, recorded in March as a first impeachment vote loomed, was made public on Monday and created fresh political turmoil in Brazil.
In the recording, Senator Romero Juca, a key member of the new government that took power after Ms. Rousseff was pushed out, seems to tell a colleague that all those being investigated, including the two of them, need to advance a "political action" to ensure the impeachment. He says that will allow them to "staunch the bleeding" caused by the Lava Jato probe, in which dozens of top political figures have been indicted or are under investigation for accepting what prosecutors say are more than $2-billion (U.S.) in bribes. And he says he has talked to senior military officials and to Supreme Court justices who back a "pact" to shut down the probe.
The origin of the recording is unclear. Its existence was made public Monday morning by the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo, and Mr. Juca confirmed its authenticity in a midday news conference in which he defended his actions, saying Folha had only released extracts that took its meaning out of context. But four hours later, he announced he would take leave from his cabinet job until prosecutors ruled he had committed no criminal offence. The recording may have been leaked by prosecutors worried that the new government is succeeding in the sort of plan Mr. Juca is heard describing, to shut down the probe, known by its police code name Lava Jato.
Monday's bombshell adds new fuel to Brazil's months-long political crisis, and comes as the economy is in free fall, the Zika virus is spreading and the Olympics are due to begin in less than three months.
On May 12, Brazil's Senate voted to put Ms. Rousseff on trial for violating a federal budgetary law, forcing her to step down for up to six months. She was replaced by her vice-president, Michel Temer, who in his first 10 days of power has announced a range of policy decisions that are decidedly more right-leaning than were those of Ms. Rousseff's elected government.
Supporters of Ms. Rousseff, who have argued all along that the effort to oust her had little or nothing to do with her budgeting practices, say the tape is evidence of a putsch. "This only confirms what we have been talking about for some time: it confirms the coup against Dilma," said Paulo Rocha, the Senate leader for her Workers' Party.
In what Folha says is a 75-minute recording, Mr. Juca is heard speaking with Sergio Machado, a former executive with the national energy company Petrobras, which is at the heart of the graft scandal. (The newspaper has released only two chunks of audio.)
The conversation in the released Folha transcripts alludes to a web of relationships and blurring of lines between Brazil's key institutions of power. Mr. Juca appears to suggest that he has discussed the plan to remove Ms. Rousseff and then stop Lava Jato with senior military and judiciary figures: "I am talking to the generals, the military commanders. They are fine with this, they said they will guarantee it …"
He then seems to suggest that the Supreme Court justices with whom he has spoken have said it is impossible to stop the probe as long as the unpopular Ms. Rousseff is president, that public scrutiny will not permit it.
Then the senator appears to say he is in regular contact with several of the justices, but laments that he can't get to Teori Zavascki, who is in charge of Lava Jato cases at the top court, saying, "he's a closed guy."
The revelations present a challenge for acting President Temer, who was counting on Mr. Juca, an experienced politician with a wide range of relationships in Congress, to ensure passage of the fiscal austerity plan he has pledged in an effort to revive Brazil's economy. Ms. Rousseff, when she was still in power, was trying to advance a similar plan, but had too little support to get hers through the house. Brazil is mired in its deepest recession since the 1930s, with inflation and unemployment rates at more than 10 per cent. As Planning Minister, Mr. Juca is in charge of overseeing the budget and was to lead conversations with members of Congress to vote this week on a new fiscal target for 2016.
Already Mr. Temer has faced sharp criticism for appointing an all-white, all-male cabinet; for unilaterally eliminating ministries; and for comments by his new ministers questioning the viability of the national health system. He appointed as his government leader in the lower house a member of Congress, Andre Moura, who faces charges not only of corruption but also of attempted murder.
Speaking to reporters after the release of the recording, Mr. Juca was at pains to reinforce his support for Lava Jato. "There isn't the tiniest chance of any interference of the executive power in any sort of investigation," he said. "… I've always said that I consider the Lava Jato operation a positive change in Brazilian politics, a paradigm change for the relationship between political parties, candidates and companies that finance political campaigns."
But supporters of Lava Jato – which is hugely popular with the Brazilian public revolted by the large-scale swindle – took it as an ominous sign when Mr. Temer appointed seven cabinet ministers who are under investigation or named in the probe. The acting president himself has been named in plea-bargain testimony. Ms. Rousseff, in contrast, faces no accusations of personal enrichment, although one witness has said she attempted to obstruct prosecutors who are investigating allies.
Mr. Temer's new Justice Minister (who has oversight of Lava Jato) is Alexandre de Moraes, who was the lawyer for lower house Speaker Eduardo Cunha, recently removed of his job because of charges he secreted millions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts that he then denied under oath that he had.
The reported contents of the tape give an indication of the fraught atmosphere behind closed doors in Brasilia. When Mr. Machado suggests a strategy meeting with the Senate president and a major party leader, Mr. Juca says they can't meet because none of them can be seen together. At another point they discuss who might run in the next election, and tick off party leaders they describe as ruined electorally. "No traditional party leader can win an election," Mr. Juca says.
And in a vivid turn of phrase, Mr. Juca says some senior politician must be sacrificed to Lava Jato so others avoid it: "There has to be a cow thrown to the piranhas: Let them get someone, and then we pass by and resolve it, get to the other side of the river."
In the Folha transcript, Mr. Machado tells the senator that the prosecutor-general is gunning for him and views him, Mr. Machado, as "the path" to nabbing the senator and other senior politicians – by forcing him to take a plea bargain and tell all he knows to avoid a long jail term. The former Petrobras executive makes what Folha called "a veiled threat" and asks Mr. Juca to ensure he doesn't end up in that position.
Mr. Juca agrees they must avoid a case ending up in the courtroom of Lava Jato's crusading judge Sergio Moro.
He compares it to "the Tower of London," where people were sent to be tortured until they confessed.
While Mr. Juca is on leave from his job, he continues to sit as a senator.
The interim planning minister will be his deputy, Dyogo Oliveira, who is being investigated in another corruption probe.