BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazilian President Michel Temer on Monday dismissed criticism that he promoted a close aide to shield him from prosecution and vowed to dismiss any minister indicted for corruption.
Although he did not mention the aide by name, the statement by Temer follows an uproar in Brazil that was triggered by the president promoting Wellington Moreira Franco on Feb. 2 to a full-fledged cabinet post, where he would be partially protected from prosecution in Brazil's biggest-ever corruption probe.
Until the promotion a top advisor charged with overseeing infrastructure plans, Moreira Franco was reportedly implicated during plea bargain testimony by a defendant in the sweeping bribery and political kickback investigation known as "Car Wash."
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The probe, centered around state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro, has already ensnared dozens of top government, political and corporate leaders over the past two years and could implicate many more, including Temer himself, as plea bargain testimony advances.
"My government would never interfere in the investigation which is the hands of the police, prosecutors and judiciary," Temer said in the statement to reporters. "The government will not shield anyone."
Last week, two opposition parties obtained lower court injunctions ordering Moreira Franco's removal from the cabinet. While those were overturned by federal judges on Friday, the Supreme Court this week is expected to make a final ruling.
As a minister, Moreira Franco can only be charged before the Supreme Court, where a trial would drag out for months or years.
Temer's denial highlighted the vulnerability of Brazil's government to accusations of corruption at a time when it hopes to rebalance government books, restore confidence and revive and economy in its worst recession on record.
The president said one mention in plea bargain testimony was not enough to dismiss a minister. Although criminal charges would lead to suspension of the minister pending investigation, the official would only be dismissed if indicted.
If more accusations emerge, or the minister or other aides are in fact indicted, the scandal could further weaken Temer's coalition in Congress. For now, he enjoys a majority that will back his proposals for unpopular austerity measures that reduce pension benefits and labor rights.
Explosive plea bargain testimony of 76 executives from Odebrecht [ODBES.UL], Brazil's largest engineering conglomerate, is expected to deepen uncertainty by naming dozens of politicians in Temer's coalition as recipients of graft money.
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by W Simon and Bernadette Baum)