In a surprise move, Brazil's Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo has resigned, stirring controversy around the widening Petrobras corruption scandal that has rocked the country's political and economic elites.
On February 29, Brazil's government announced Cardozo would step down from his current role to become the country's attorney general, reported The Wall Street Journal.
Cardozo, who became Justice Minister in 2011, is a member of Brazil's ruling Workers' Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores - PT) and a close ally of current Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff.
According to Bloomberg, Wellington César Lima e Silva, the chief prosecutor from Bahia state, will assume Cardozo's former position.
Also occurring on February 29, a letter to Brazil's Supreme Court was made public in which federal prosecutors requested a probe into the finances of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, also of the PT, reported Reuters.
The move comes amid revelations Lula may own a beach-front penthouse and country estate in São Paulo, and that he received favors from construction companies implicated in the ongoing corruption scandal at state-owned oil company Petróleo Brasileiro S.A (Petrobras).
Lula da Silva denies ownership of the properties, which were allegedly renovated by Grupo OAS and Odebrecht S.A., two firms with executives charged with money laundering and corruption as a result of Petrobras investigations.
InSight Crime Analysis
Cardozo's resignation may indicate growing unease among the Workers' Party leadership over investigations into the Petrobras bribery and kickback scandal, dubbed "Operation Car Wash," which have already implicated a wide range of Brazil's political and economic elite. Cardozo came under intense criticism from high-level party officials for his handling of Operation Car Wash. Notably, his new position as attorney general does not involve overseeing criminal investigations.
"Influential PT members, led by Lula, have been openly critical of Cardozo's handling of the Lava Jato investigation," said analyst Daniel Caplin of the consulting firm S-RM, using the Portuguese name for Operation Car Wash. They "have held Cardozo responsible for not controlling the Federal Police, and allowing them free reign to investigate the heart of the PT."
Last week authorities arrested João Santana, a top strategist for both Rousseff and Lula da Silva, for allegedly accepting $7.5 million in bribe money. The Petrobras scandal also crossed international borders, with evidence surfacing that Peruvian President Ollanta Humala may have accepted bribes from Odebrecht S.A. for public works contracts.
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Now, it appears prosecutors are looking to close in on Lula da Silva, who has previously managed to avoid direct implication in the Petrobras fallout.
Caplin told InSight Crime a "key factor" in understanding the change in Justice Minister is the nearing of investigations to Lula. Cardozo's replacement, Wellington César, is considered to be an ally of Lula, Caplin said.
Nonetheless, this may not be enough to offer Lula much protection from investigations. Cardozo has asserted he had no authority to interfere in Federal Police investigations without evidence police had violated a person's rights. And, despite being subordinated to the Justice Ministry, the Federal Police are largely independent.
However, in response to the change in minister, elements of the Federal Police did voice concerns over "political pressures" interfering with their work.