A Brazilian judge sentenced Eduardo Cunha, the former speaker of the lower house and mastermind behind the parliamentary coup against former President Dilma Rousseff, to 15 years and four months in jail Thursday for corruption charges.
Democracy Is Dead in Brazil
The sentence is the result of a criminal suit investigating Cunha for fraud related to millions of dollars in kickbacks he received for the 2011 purchase of an oil field in the West African country of Benin by the state-run oil company, Petrobras, which has been at the center of a major anti-corruption probe in the South American country known as Operation Car Wash.
Federal Judge Sergio Moro handed down the sentence over charges of corruption, money laundering and tax evasion. The former head of the lower house has been held in pre-trial detention since last October.
"The responsibility of a federal parliamentarian is enormous, and therefore so is his guilt when he commits crimes," said Moro. "There is no bigger crime than that of trying to use one's parliamentary mandate and the sacred trust the people place in it to obtain personal gain."
According to Moro, Cunha received US$1.5 million in bribes for the Benin oil field contract, which, according to an internal Petrobras investigation reported by local media, resulted in US$77.5 million in losses for the state-run oil company after no oil was found at the site.
The federal public prosecutor's office had called for Cunha to be forced to pay full damages to Petrobras, but Moro has signaled that a fine equivalent to the US$1.5 million bribe he received will be ordered.
While Cunha's defense team has said that they will appeal the decision, Moro confirmed that the politician will remain behind bars while the appeals process moves forward.
The Coup That Ousted Brazilian Democracy
Despite himself facing multimillion dollar bribery and fraud charges, Cunha was a key architect in painting the impeachment process against Dilma Rousseff as a campaign to root out government corruption.
A member of unelected President Michel Temer’s PMDB party, Cunha is accused of corruption, money laundering and tax evasion linked to raking in at least US$5 million in illicit kickbacks between 2006 and 2012 and hiding the wealth in Swiss bank accounts.
Cunha was removed from his position as speaker of the lower house last September after being suspended in May 2016 — just weeks after the lower house pushed through the impeachment bid against Rousseff — to face an impeachment process over accusations that he intimidated lawmakers and hampered investigations. The Congress voted overwhelmingly by 450 to 10 to remove the unpopular politician.
The overwhelming decision to remove Cunha also stripped him of the parliamentary immunity he long enjoyed, opening him up to the corruption charges. Authorities arrested him at his apartment in Brasilia last October over accusations he hid laundered money in secret Swiss bank account while in office.
Despite the power he has wielded over Brazilian politics, polling over the past year has repeatedly unmasked Cunha as one of the most unpopular politicians in the country, including among his own party.
Several other top Temer allies have also been targeted in the Operation Car Wash investigations that have led to the arrests of dozens of politicans and economic elites over bribery schemes and corruption linked to Petrobras.