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Brazil’s Former House Speaker Eduardo Cunha Arrested in Corruption Investigation
SÃO PAULO— Eduardo Cunha, Brazil’s former House speaker who spearheaded the impeachment proceedings that toppled former President Dilma Rousseff, was arrested Wednesday in connection with a sprawling corruption scandal centered on the nation’s state-run oil company.
Mr. Cunha, 58 years old, was indicted earlier this year on charges of corruption and money laundering. Prosecutors alleged that he pocketed millions in bribes from a company seeking contracts with oil firm Petróleo Brasileiro SA, or Petrobras.
Federal police in Brasília detained Mr. Cunha on Wednesday afternoon and quickly transported him to a jail in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba, where the so-called Operation Car Wash bid-rigging-and-bribery probe is based.
Prosecutors said in a statement that Mr. Cunha is being held pending trial because he is a potential flight risk; he possesses dual Italian and Brazilian citizenship and prosecutors have alleged that he controls bank accounts abroad.
Mr. Cunha’s attorney couldn’t be immediately reached for comment. Mr. Cunha in the past has steadfastly denied wrongdoing. A statement posted on his Twitter account Wednesday said “my lawyers will take the appropriate measures to address this absurd decision.”
Mr. Cunha’s imprisonment is a stunning reversal of fortune for one of the nation’s most powerful politicians, who ruled the lower house through a potent mix of intelligence and cunning. As a member of the ruling Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, or PMDB, Mr. Cunha opened the impeachment proceedings against Ms. Rousseff, clearing the path for fellow PMDB member Michel Temer to ascend to the presidency.
But lawmakers may not have heard the last of Mr. Cunha, who could follow the path of other defendants caught up in the Petrobras dragnet by cutting a plea deal with prosecutors in exchange for leniency.
Mr. Cunha’s wife, Cláudia Cruz, has also been charged by prosecutors with money laundering in connection with the Petrobras case; prosecutors allege she used money diverted from the company to finance a lavish lifestyle that included international travel, luxury shopping sprees and pricey tennis lessons. Her indictment has raised speculation in Brasília that Mr. Cunha will turn state’s evidence and implicate others to protect his family.
Attorneys for Ms. Cruz couldnt be immediately reached for comment. She has denied wrongdoing in the past.
Mr. Cunha’s arrest comes at a delicate time for Mr. Temer, who is trying to push unpopular austerity legislation through Congress to get Brazil’s troubled economy back on track.
“Eduardo Cunha is a ghost who may come to haunt the entire political class,” said Carlos Melo, a political-science professor at São Paulo’s Insper business school. “This arrest will have a negative effect on the congressional agenda.”
An evangelical Christian whose Twitter account says he is a defender of life and family, Mr. Cunha was expelled from Congress last month by colleagues on ethics violations linked to the Petrobras case. That move stripped him of special legal protections granted to sitting politicians. He will now be tried by Judge Sergio Moro, the judge who has sentenced a string of powerful defendants to long prison terms in the Petrobras affair.