Brazil Investigates Crash That Killed Car Wash Probe Judge

SARAH DiLORENZO, AP

SAO PAULO (AP) — Brazilian authorities on Friday were investigating a plane crash that killed the Supreme Court justice in charge of a major corruption case just weeks before he was scheduled to issue a ruling that could have revealed accusations against politicians in several Latin American countries.

The death of Justice Teori Zavascki in Thursday’s crash is likely to delay, though not derail, the “Car Wash” investigation, the largest corruption investigation in Brazil’s history. Investigators allege inflated contracts with state oil giant Petrobras and other state-run companies to pay for bribes and election campaigns.

The small plane went down in heavy rains Thursday just off the coast of Paraty, a colonial town and popular vacation spot about 155 miles (250 kilometers) west of Rio de Janeiro.

Although the cause was unclear, many Brazilians voiced fears of foul play since Zavascki held such an important role in the investigation, in which dozens of politicians and businessmen already have been jailed. Transparency International called for a full investigation into the crash.

While the “Car Wash” probe has been led by a team of prosecutors and Judge Sergio Moro in the southern city of Curitiba, Zavascki handled cases involving politicians. Under Brazilian law, only the Supreme Court can decide to charge or jail federal politicians.

Federal police and the public prosecutor have opened investigations into the crash, and the prosecutor’s office said Friday that it has asked aviation authorities for documents about the plane’s maintenance and recordings of conversations between the pilot and air traffic controllers.

Rescuers said Friday that they had recovered all five bodies from the crash. They include: Zavascki; pilot Osmar Rodrigues; businessman Carlos Alberto Filgueiras; Maira Lidiane Panas Helatczuk, a massage therapist who was treating Filgueiras; and Helatczuk’s mother, Maria Ilda Panas.

Zavascki had been reviewing dozens of plea bargains of former and current executives of the Odebrecht construction company, which was one of the main players in the kickback scheme that prosecutors say yielded more than $2 billion in bribes over a decade.

Zavascki was expected to decide which of the Odebrecht plea bargains to validate by February. Validation would make them public, potentially implicating dozens of politicians in Brazil and several other countries where Odebrecht did business.

One of those implicated could be President Michel Temer, who denies any wrongdoing. Former Odebrecht director Claudio Melo Filho cited Temer 44 times, making accusations of illegal campaign financing. If his allegations are confirmed by Brazil’s top electoral court, Temer would be removed from the presidency and Congress would pick a successor.

The justice’s death will likely slow down the timeline for validating the plea bargains. The caseload would typically be handed over to whomever Temer nominates to take Zavascki’s place on the court. The process of nominating and confirming a new justice would take at least a month, according to Christopher Garman, an analyst with Eurasia Group.

However, the court itself could decide to transfer Zavascki’s cases to a sitting justice and not wait for a new one to be confirmed.

“The Lava Jato (Car Wash) probe will not suffer a material setback,” Garman wrote in a note. “And we wouldn’t bet on too large of a delay. There will be tremendous pressure within the court, and in public opinion, to keep the investigations alive.”

About 100 politicians and business executives have already been arrested or are under investigation in Brazil in the probe. In addition to Temer, senior Cabinet members and close aides and allies of the president have been implicated in testimony from some of those arrested.

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Associated Press writers Peter Prengaman in Rio de Janeiro and Mauricio Savarese in Chapeco contributed this report.
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