Brazil's acting President Michel Temer speaks during his first cabinet meeting , at the Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Friday, May 13, 2016. (Photo: AP)
Brazil's interim government came under fire on Monday as a secret recording emerged of the planning minister discussing a purported pact to push for President Dilma Rousseff's impeachment to stall a massive corruption probe that has engulfed much of the nation's political class.
Even some allies of acting President Michel Temer called for the firing or resignation of Planning Minister Romero Juca, also a senator who is under investigation in the multibillion-dollar kickback scheme at state oil company Petrobras. Juca made the comments in a conversation with Sergio Machado, a former senator who until recently headed another state oil company, Transpetro.
Soon after transcripts of the recording were published by the daily Folha de S.Paulo, Juca called a news conference and said his comments had been taken out of context. He said he was not pushing to impeach Rousseff, but rather noting that things would be different under a different government.
Rousseff, Brazil's first female president, was suspended from office by the Senate earlier this month for allegedly using accounting tricks to hide yawning deficits in the federal budget to bolster support for her embattled government. Rousseff has repeatedly argued she did nothing wrong.
Temer, who was her vice president, took over and will remain in power while the Senate conducts a trial within the next six months.
The recording is sure to deepen Brazil's political crisis. Rousseff supporters and the president herself have long argued her administration was the victim of a coup orchestrated by opposition lawmakers, in large part to dilute the Petrobras investigation.
In the last two years, dozens of the country's elite, from lawmakers to top businessmen, have been charged, tried and jailed in a probe so large that it's shocked even Brazilians long inured to graft in politics.
Rousseff's popularity took a hit because of the investigation. Much of the alleged wrongdoing took place while her Workers' Party was in power the last 13 years, though she herself has never been implicated.
Although she paid for it politically, Rousseff refused to do anything to tamper with an investigation she said Brazil badly needed.
The leaked recording was of a March meeting at Juca's house, weeks before Brazil's lower Chamber of Deputies voted to send the impeachment measure to the Senate. How the recording was made was not immediately clear. Juca acknowledged the conversation but said he didn't know it was made, since he and Machado were alone. The newspaper did not disclose how it was obtained.
In the conversation, Juca said that he wanted to keep Judge Sergio Moro out of the Petrobras investigations related to him, others in Temer's inner circle and Senate President Renan Calheiros. Moro, the lead judge on the Petrobras probe, has moved against many who don't hold elected offices or Cabinet positions.
Only the Supreme Federal Tribunal, the country's highest court, can decide to charge or put on trial federal lawmakers and presidential Cabinet members. Out of office, Machado was seen as vulnerable, and according to press reports had been negotiating a plea deal.
"We have to solve this. We have to change the government so the bleeding is stopped," Juca said in the conversation, according to the newspaper account.
Machado responded: "The easiest solution is to put Michel in."
Juca also said he had talked to unnamed justices in Brazil's top court and heard that the press and other institutions would lower the pressure once Rousseff was out of office.
The minister also said key figures of the opposition, including defeated presidential candidate Aecio Neves and new Foreign Minister Jose Serra, were "all on the tray to be eaten" by the investigations.
In a press conference, Juca said the "bleeding" he was referring to had to do with Brazil's economy, which is expected to contract at nearly 4 percent this year after an equally dismal 2015.
He also denied trying to stop the Petrobras probe.
"I always defended those investigations," he said, adding that he was not afraid of being investigated. "I think it is changing Brazil's history."
Juca said that earlier in the day he met with Temer, who asked him to address the controversy publicly.
Even some allies were quick to say Juca needed to be shown the door only 12 days after being sworn in.
"With all this, it is not good that he stays on," said deputy Pauderney Avelino, a Temer ally.