Brazil Supreme Court justice orders probe into eight cabinet ministers

By Ricardo Brito and Lisandra Paraguassu
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President of the Chamber of Deputies Maia speaks with Brazil's president Temer near Brazil's Chief of Staff Minister Padilha during a meeting of the Pension Reform Commission at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia

President of the Chamber of Deputies Rodrigo Maia (L) speaks with Brazil's president Michel Temer near Brazil's Chief of Staff Minister Eliseu Padilha (R) during a meeting of the Pension Reform Commission at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

By Ricardo Brito and Lisandra Paraguassu

BRASILIA (Reuters) - A Brazilian Supreme Court justice on Tuesday opened investigations into eight ministers in President Michel Temer's cabinet and dozens of sitting lawmakers allegedly linked to the country's biggest-ever corruption scandal.

The office of Justice Edson Fachin released the names of the politicians targeted after lifting the seal on plea bargain testimony from 77 employees of builder Odebrecht [ODBES.UL], which has admitted paying millions of dollars in bribes.

The investigation into eight ministers, or nearly a third of the president's cabinet, poses a serious threat to Temer's efforts to regain investor confidence and lift the economy out of its worst recession on record.

Temer's office declined to comment.

The ministers targeted include Eliseu Padilha, Temer's chief of staff and an experienced politician who is considered key in negotiations with Congress to approve the administration's landmark pension reform.

Padilha declined to comment on the investigation order, saying he will defend himself in court.

Temer's ministers of foreign affairs, trade and agriculture will also be investigated as part of the case that has shaken Brazil's political establishment and jolted financial markets.

The heads of both houses of Brazil's Congress are being targeted as well as senior politicians from both Temer's ruling coalition and the opposition, including former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff.

"The political crisis will deepen and we risk an institutional paralysis because the entire Brazilian political system is under question," opposition senator Jorge Viana, who is also under investigation, said in a statement.

Brazil's top public prosecutor in March asked the Supreme Court to open 83 investigations into senior politicians based on the Odebrecht employees' testimony.

Local media have reported the testimony accuses dozens of politicians of taking bribes to help what was once Latin America's biggest builder win lucrative contracts with state-run oil company Petrobras.

Rodrigo Maia, the head of the Chamber of Deputies, said his innocence will be proved during the investigation. Other politicians also insisted they were innocent and discredited the testimonies.

Temer has vowed to suspend ministers who are charged and dismiss any if indicted.

Aides close to Temer have told Reuters that it could take months for the ministers to be charged, meaning Padilha and other key cabinet members will likely stay in their posts long enough to secure the pension reform's passage.

Former presidential candidate and likely contender for the 2018 elections, Senator Aecio Neves of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) also will be investigated, the daily reported.

(Reporting by Ricardo Brito, writing by Alonso Soto; editing by Daniel Flynn, G Crosse and Bill Trott)

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