Brazil Senate head steps down for now amid probe

BRASILIA Thu Oct 11, 2007 8:36pm EDT

1 of 3. Brazil's Senate President Renan Calheiros leaves the National Congress building in Brasilia October 11, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Jamil Bittar

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BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil's Senate chief, Renan Calheiros, said on Thursday he was stepping down temporarily to battle corruption allegations leveled against him.

"Tonight I decided to step down for a period of 45 days," Calheiros said in a televised address.

He said he would prove he was innocent of all accusations against him.

Calheiros, until recently one of the most influential politicians in Brazil, had held on to power despite months of intense media scrutiny.

His fortunes changed when the government distanced itself from him earlier this week, concerned that disagreement with the opposition over the scandal could hold up an important tax bill.

Calheiros is the latest ally of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to step aside in corruption-related scandals since he took office in January 2003.

The Senate head belongs to the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, or PMDB, the largest party in Lula's 11-party coalition.

Calheiros was absolved last month in a 40-to-35 Senate vote of accusations he had personal expenses paid by a construction firm. He still faces three more accusations of fraud, influence-peddling and embezzlement in the Senate's ethics committee.

Lawmakers this week filed another petition against Calheiros in the ethics committee, claiming he was spying on two senators from opposition parties.

The series of accusations against Calheiros began in May, when evidence surfaced that a construction firm paid for an ex-lover's allowance in a suspected influence-peddling scheme. Monica Veloso, 39 and the mother of Calheiros' daughter from an extramarital affair, this week bared all in the local Playboy magazine.

"I will face the charges with dignity and no evasion," he said.

Arthur Virgilio, leader of the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party, said Calheiros' decision would help promote a more thorough investigation of all the allegations without "improper meddling."

"I hope this works to help alleviate the tension in the Senate," Virgilio said in a statement, according to O Globo newswire. "Now, let's follow with ... wide investigations, quickly and free of any improper meddling so that justice can be done."

Lula has for the past three years been dogged by a series of corruption scandals involving prominent allies.

His energy minister resigned in May over accusations he took a kickback for a government contract and 40 former government allies are on trial, accused of running an illicit fund-raising scheme to finance election campaigns and bribe lawmakers.

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