Petrobras reports record loss as Brazil crisis churns

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  • Dilma Rousseff
    Dilma Rousseff
    President of Brazil

Brasília (AFP) - Brazilian state oil company Petrobras reported a record loss, underlining the toll that a deep political crisis in which it plays a starring role is taking on the Latin American giant.

Petrobras, which is at the center of an explosive corruption scandal that has wrought chaos on Brazilian politics, said it lost $9.6 billion last year, the worst result since its founding in 1953.

The scandal meanwhile inched closer to embattled President Dilma Rousseff as a congressional impeachment committee debated whether to expand the case against her -- which so far deals only with accounting irregularities -- to include corruption accusations.

The lawyer who prepared the formal accusation asked the 65-member committee for permission to add allegations from a senator charged in the Petrobras case, who said that Rousseff knew about the corruption and used some of the proceeds to fund her campaigns.

Rousseff's allies fired back that her opponents were trying to cheat the rules.

"You can't add anything new. The accusation of manipulating public accounts has nothing to do with (Senator Delcidio do Amaral's) accusation.... We're not here to play a game with marked cards," said lawmaker Chico Alencar.

Thousands of anti-Rousseff protesters gathered outside the presidential palace, shouting "Get out!" -- a message directed at the ruling Workers' Party.

They used a projector to write the word "impeachment" on the side of the building in neon blue.

Rousseff's presidency appears to be in peril as she fights impeachment, protests, recession and scandal.

And her decision to call her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, to the rescue backfired last week when a judge blocked his appointment as her chief of staff over pending corruption charges linked to the Petrobras scandal.

Lula, who presided over a booming Brazil from 2003 to 2011, is fighting a Supreme Court injunction blocking his political comeback -- and the ministerial immunity that comes with it.

Ministers can only be tried before the Supreme Court in Brazil.

Lula flew to Brasilia to meet with Rousseff and some of her ministers, and likely to discuss the status of his appeal to the high court to annul a ruling by one of its judges suspending his appointment and sending his case back to criminal court.

Until the Supreme Court reaches a final ruling, he risks being placed in preventive detention by the crusading anti-corruption judge leading the investigation, Sergio Moro.

The high court is not due to reconvene until March 30.

- Petrobras reeling -

Investigators say Petrobras execs colluded with contractors to massively overbill the oil company over the course of a decade, bribing politicians and political parties to keep the scheme going.

Petrobras, Brazil's largest company, bemoaned a long list of adverse business conditions as it reported its second year in the red, including the crash in oil prices, a sinking currency and Brazil's credit downgrade to junk status by the big three ratings agencies.

"It was an extremely difficult year for the oil industry in general," said chief executive Aldemir Bendine.

The Petrobras scandal has upended Brazilian politics, after 13 years of dominance by the Workers' Party.

The crisis has triggered huge, angry protests for and against Rousseff, laying bare sharp divisions in the country of 200 million people, just months before the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August.

The International Olympic Committee said it was "closely monitoring political developments," but that it remains "very confident" the Games will be a success.

- Call to tread carefully -

A poll released Saturday found 68 percent of Brazilians now favor impeaching Rousseff.

Another poll Sunday found the congressional impeachment committee is almost evenly split: 32 members favor impeachment, 31 are against and two are undecided.

The committee is tasked with making a recommendation to the full Congress on whether to impeach.

If Congress votes to start an impeachment trial, Rousseff would be suspended from her duties for up to 180 days. A two-thirds vote in the Senate would then remove her from office.

The head of the committee, Rogerio Rosso, urged his fellow members to tread carefully.

"If we're not careful and don't pay absolute attention to the legal procedures, we could deepen this nation's crisis," he said.

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