Brazil's speaker plays for time to dodge corruption probe

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazilian lawmakers almost came to blows on Thursday in a heated committee hearing that failed for a sixth time to decide whether to investigate lower house speaker Eduardo Cunha for lying about his bank accounts in Switzerland.

President of Brazil's Chamber of Deputies Eduardo Cunha gestures during the appointment of a committee stacked with opponents of President Dilma Rousseff at the National Congress in Brasilia, Brazil, December 8, 2015. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Tempers frayed when Cunha’s opponents on the committee called for a plenary vote in the lower house to remove Cunha as speaker, amid mounting frustration at what his critics say is his use of bureaucratic trickery to obstruct its hearings.

Cunha and his allies succeeded on Wednesday in ousting the committee’s rapporteur, who had recommended launching an investigation into the speaker. His replacement cannot now report to the committee before Tuesday, with only one week left before the Christmas recess.

Several lawmakers have turned to Brazil’s top prosecutor and the Supreme Court seeking an injunction to remove Cunha, who is an avowed foe of President Dilma Rousseff.

“As long as Cunha is speaker, he will use every tool, every trick, every possible maneuver in the rule book to stop the advance of the complaint against him in the ethics committee,” said Alessandro Molon, of the left-leaning Rede party.

Cunha last week opened impeachment proceedings against Rousseff for allegedly breaking Brazil’s budget law, in an apparent attempt to distract attention from mounting accusations of corruption against him.

An ethics probe could lead to the ousting of Cunha as speaker and loss of his seat, which would weaken the bid to impeach Rousseff.

Brazilian prosecutors have charged Cunha with corruption in connection with an investigation into a massive kickback scheme involving contracts with state-run oil company Petrobras. Cunha has denied allegations that he took a $5 million bribe.

He also denied having a bank account abroad before a congressional hearing into the Petrobras scandal, but Swiss authorities provided Brazilian prosecutors with details of accounts he and his wife held at Julius Baer bank, plus details of lavish credit card expenses.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court suspended proceedings to impeach Rousseff in the lower house until it rules on a secret vote allowed by Cunha that stacked a congressional impeachment committee with her opponents.

In the tense atmosphere of Brazil’ political crisis and uncertainty over the impeachment of Rousseff, it is anyone’s guess who will survive longer, the president or the speaker.

Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Sandra Maler