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May 10, 2006 6:29 pm

One-third of Brazil’s lower house accused in scandal

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The year-old corruption scandal surrounding the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president, has taken a fresh turn with accusations that a third of the lower house of Congress received bribes to make amendments to Brazil’s national budget.

The accusations were made by Maria da Penha Limo, a former employee at the health ministry, who was arrested last week, along with at least 54 other people in a federal police operation known as Operation Bloodsucker.

Investigators had uncovered a scheme in which 170 federal deputies allegedly used budget amendments to release money to buy ambulances for local health authorities. The ambulances were bought for between a quarter and a third of the amount released and the remainder of the funds were allegedly shared among the scheme’s operators.

Veja, a weekly news magazine, carried a story at the weekend containing transcripts of police recordings of telephone conversations between alleged operators of the scheme. They identify aides of members of Congress discussing the payment of bribes. In one conversation, a congressional aide discusses with one of the scheme’s operators the possibility of killing a journalist investigating the affair.

Ms da Penha’s accusations, made as part of a plea bargain, takes the case further. According to her lawyer, she told investigators that members of congress received between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of the amount they released through budget amendments, in a scheme understood to have involved at least R$110m.

At least three federal deputies accused of involvement in the scheme denied any wrongdoing.

Opposition leaders jumped on the allegations as further evidence of widespread corruption in government. Members of Mr Lula da Silva’s administration have been accused over the past year of using illegal campaign finance and of paying bribes to their congressional allies in exchange for their support in Congress.

“This is the theme of the Lula government,” said Geraldo Alckmin, likely to run as candidate for the opposition centrist PSDB in the presidential election due in October. “Wherever you look you find misappropriation of public money.”

Separately, the former secretary of Mr Lula da Silva’s Workers’ party (PT) gave evidence to a Senate corruption inquiry on Wednesday following a newspaper interview in which he put Mr Lula da Silva among decisionmakers in the PT when the cash-for-votes scheme was allegedly at its height.

Mr Pereira refused to elaborate on his interview in the first part of his evidence on Wednesday afternoon, saying that he had not yet read the newspaper interview and so could not comment on it.

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