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article imageProtester releases rodents at Brazil graft hearing

By AFP     Apr 9, 2015 in World

A hearing into a massive graft scandal at Brazil's state oil firm Petrobras was interrupted Thursday when a protester unleashed several rodents including mice, hamsters and gerbils on proceedings, sparking chaos at Congress.

The small brown creatures were released by an unknown suspect in the middle of the hearing, interrupting a statement by ruling Workers Party treasurer Joao Vaccari Neto and briefly creating chaos among journalists and politicians as they scampered across the floor.

Security removed the person apparently responsible, as onlookers said the hearing was being turned into a "circus." The suspect was not named.

One lawmaker pointed his finger at a colleague and insisted he be reprimanded.

"What happened must not go unpunished," said Jorge Sola, accusing opposition lawmaker Waldir Soares de Oliveira of the Social Democracy Party.

"This must be recorded in the minutes," Sola added.

De Oliveira denied any involvement in the prank.

Security officers removed the offending creatures and the proceedings resumed.

Vaccari, who denies wrongdoing, is one of 27 people facing trial on corruption and money laundering charges relating to the graft scandal which broke 13 months ago.

He is accused of receiving millions in bribes as part of a multibillion-dollar kickback scheme embroiling some of Brazil's top politicians.

Workers Party Treasurer Joao Vaccari Neto testifies before a special committee of the Brazilian Cong...
Workers Party Treasurer Joao Vaccari Neto testifies before a special committee of the Brazilian Congress, investigating alleged corruption in the state-owned oil company Petrobras, on April 9, 2015 in Brasilia
Evaristo Sa, AFP

Vaccari said the fact that several suspects had mentioned him in testimony as part of plea bargains in their own cases did not constitute proof.

His is one of the biggest names to fall under suspicion in a scandal that has rocked Brazil's government. Vaccari allegedly received cash worth $1.2 million but says any money received comprised legal political donations.

The scandal has wiped tens of billions of dollars off Petrobras' market value and forced it to delay publishing externally audited accounts from last year. The company told AFP on Thursday it still has no definite date to release the data.

In January, Petrobras unveiled unaudited accounts showing profits down nine percent on the previous year.

Struggling to assess potential asset write-downs owing to the scandal, Petrobras indicated in its internal audit it had discovered 88.6 billion reais ($29 billion) of asset overvaluations but could not calculate losses stemming directly from the kickbacks affair.

Energy Minister Eduardo Braga earlier called for the amendment of legislation obliging Petrobras involvement in the extraction of all "pre-salt" oil deposits in the Atlantic under layers of salt.

Current legislation affords Petrobras sole operator status and a guaranteed 30 percent minimum share in pre-salt concessions.

But the graft scandal has hit the firm's ability to raise investment, caused its share price to collapse and undermined its reputation as Brazil's most prestigious company.

"The distribution regime needs to be revised... we cannot place such obligations on a company without the physical and financial capacity" to carry them out, Braga told a senate meeting.

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