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Michel Temer, Brazil’s interim president, suffered his first casualty less than two weeks after taking office when a senior minister stepped down on Monday night for allegedly plotting to curb corruption investigations.
Planning minister Romero Jucá said he was taking leave of absence after Folha de São Paulo newspaper reported he had been caught on tape saying a change of government was needed to contain a sweeping corruption probe into state-owned oil companyPetrobras.
The tape was made before President Dilma Rousseff of the leftist Workers’ party, or PT, was impeached earlier this month, a move that brought Mr Temer into office. He and Mr Jucá are leaders of the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement party, or PMDB.
“I didn’t do anything but it won’t prove anything to say anything more at the moment,” he told reporters, announcing he was taking leave from his post to defend himself from charges.
The crisis has threatened to destabilise Mr Temer’s new government just as it is seeking to launch an ambitious economic programme aimed at rebalancing Brazil’s budget and laying the foundations for an economic recovery.
But Mr Jucá’s decision to step down so quickly may help limit the political damage from the crisis, analysts say.
Mr Jucá is one of several members of Mr Temer’s new cabinet who are under investigation in the Petrobras case, in which members of the former ruling coalition of Ms Rousseff’s PT are alleged to have plotted with company executives and contractors to extract bribes and kickbacks.
He was caught on tape telling Sérgio Machado, ex-president of a Petrobras subsidiary, Transpetro, in a private conversation that a change of government would be necessary to stop the investigation from implicating everyone in his party, Folha de S.Paulo newspaper said.
“We have to change the government to stop this bleeding,” he said.
Mr Jucá did not deny the existence of the conversation but said it had been taken out of context.
Mr Machado is also under investigation in the Petrobras probe. He could not be reached for comment on Monday.
Mr Jucá forms part of the senior leadership of Mr Temer’s PMDB alongside the leader of the senate, Renan Calheiros, who is also under investigation in Lava Jato, or Car Wash, as the Petrobras investigation is referred to. Eduardo Cunha, the head of the lower house of congress, has also been suspended in the probe.
Everyone is on the tray waiting to be eaten
In extracts of the tape reported by Folha de S.Paulo, Mr Machado warns Mr Jucá that attorney-general Rodrigo Janot planned to target the entire PMDB leadership.
“I’m worried because I think Janot is out to get you and I think I am the path to that,” Mr Machado, a former PMDB senator, said.
He added later in the conversation: “The situation is grave because, Romero, they are out to get all politicians.”
Mr Jucá replied: “To put an end to the political class so that a new pure breed can emerge.”
The pair discussed how Aécio Neves, the leader of the main opposition party, the PSDB, would likely be also consumed by the corruption investigations if there was no impeachment.
“Everyone is on the tray waiting to be eaten,” said Mr Jucá. Mr Machado replied: “The first [in the PSDB] will be Aécio.”
In a note, the PSDB said the dialogue between Mr Jucá and Mr Machado did not contain any explicit accusations of wrongdoing against Mr Neves.
Mr Jucá mentioned in the conversation he was speaking with the military, which had guaranteed it would maintain calm during the political crisis.
He said he had also spoken with some supreme court judges, who had implied that the Lava Jato investigation would continue as long as Ms Rousseff was there because of her unpopularity with the media and others.
In a press conference after the publication of the recording, Mr Jucá said he supported the Lava Jato investigation but that it should be concluded more rapidly so that the nation’s politicians did not exist permanently under a “dark cloud”.
He said it was in this context he had discussed the case with the judges of the supreme court, whom he had met socially.