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Peru's congress launches process for president's ouster

Congresswoman Rosa Bartra, center, attends a special session on whether to initiate impeachment proceeding against the country's president, in Lima, Peru, Friday, Dec. 15, 2017. Lawmakers went onto to approve impeachment proceedings against President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski over previously undisclosed payments a decade ago from a Brazilian company at the heart of Latin America's biggest graft scandal. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

Congresswoman Rosa Bartra, center, attends a special session on whether to initiate impeachment proceeding against the country's president, in Lima, Peru, Friday, Dec. 15, 2017. Lawmakers went onto to approve impeachment proceedings against President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski over previously undisclosed payments a decade ago from a Brazilian company at the heart of Latin America's biggest graft scandal. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

LIMA, Peru — Lawmakers in Peru launched proceedings Friday to oust President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who refuses to resign after being accused of failing to disclose decade-old payments from a Brazilian company embroiled in Latin America's biggest corruption scandal.

Congress voted overwhelmingly in favour of a motion to consider impeaching the former Wall Street banker for "permanent moral incapacity" after hours of debate that stretched into the night. Kuczynski will have a chance to defend himself on Thursday before lawmakers decide his fate.

The political turmoil rocking Peru is the latest fallout from the wide-reaching Odebrecht corruption scandal that has ensnared some of Latin America's most powerful political leaders. The Brazilian construction giant admitted in a 2016 U.S. Justice Department plea agreement to paying nearly $800 million in bribes to obtain lucrative public works contracts. Investigations continue as prosecutors throughout the region try to determine who in the halls of power met and accepted payments from Odebrecht.

"The country is living an historic moment," lawmaker Indira Huilca told Peruvian congressional leaders before the vote. "Odebrecht is just the tip of the iceberg."

Kuczynski has denied wrongdoing, stating in an impassioned speech late Thursday that he had no involvement in payments made by Odebrecht-led consortiums to his Westfield Capital consulting firm.

"I'm not running and I'm not hiding because I have no reason to," Kuczynski said. "I'm not going to abdicate my honour , my values or my responsibilities as president of all Peruvians."

Opposition lawmakers presented documents provided by Odebrecht Wednesday showing $782,000 in payments to Westfield between 2004 and 2007. Between those years, Peru awarded Odebrecht a major highway contract and Kuczynski was a high-ranking government official. The president said he had no management duties at his consulting term during that period. He added that all the payments were made to his business partner. That partner also owns First Capital, which the Odebrecht documents show received $4 million.

Kuczynski said all his earnings from Westfield were duly reported to Peru's tax authority. Of the $4 million in payments to First Capital, he said only one transaction, for which he held up an invoice, was for financial consulting services he provided the firm in 2012 as part of its work on an Odebrecht-owned irrigation project. Kuczynski did not hold a public office in 2012.

"I'm an honest man and have been all my life," Kuczynski said.

The 79-year-old president was elected in 2016 after a lucrative business career. He campaigned on a pledge to clean up corruption and provide much-needed stability in one of South America's most politically volatile nations.

The Odebrecht scandal continues to ripple across Latin America, with Ecuadorean Vice-President Jorge Glas sentenced to six years in jail earlier this week after a court found him guilty of orchestrating a plot to accept bribes from the company. Odebrecht has acknowledged paying $29 million in Peru during the 2001-2006 administration of President Alejandro Toledo and two of his successors. Kuczynski served as Toledo's finance chief and prime minister.

As recently as last month, Kuczynski denied having any professional or political ties to Odebrecht and wagged his finger at three predecessors accused of taking bribes from the company.

His detractors now accuse him of misleading the nation. Ninety-three of 118 lawmakers voted in favour of advancing impeachment proceedings Friday, six more votes than the 87 that will be required to remove him out of office next week.

As lawmakers debated his removal, Kuczynski was holed up in the presidential palace with top cabinet members Friday afternoon.

Supporters of the president in congress described the impeachment vote as a power grab by opposition lawmakers who have a majority in congress. They said Kuczynski shouldn't be removed for an isolated incident that took place before he became president.

Still, Peruvians are unlikely to be convinced by Kuczynski's reassurances that he did nothing wrong, analysts said.

Steve Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist who has spent years studying Peru, said Kuczynski was already a weak president with little legislative or popular support before the corruption allegations, which had been quietly dogging him for some time.

"He definitely seems to be dead in the water," said Levitsky. "It's not that what he did was necessarily illegal, but the fact that he swore over and over again that he had no ties to Odebrecht, and that was proven to be nakedly false."

Kuczynski would not be the first president in Peru removed on moral grounds if lawmakers succeed. In 2000, President Alberto Fuijmori was ousted a week after flying to Japan amid a mounting corruption scandal. Fujimori is the father of Keiko Fujimori, who narrowly lost to Kuczynski in last year's election and is the leader of the Popular Force party.

Alberto Fujimori is in jail for human rights violations. Both of his politician children have advocated for their father's release.

Kenji Fujimori, his son and a current opposition congressman, urged lawmakers to listen to Kuczynski's testimony carefully before deciding how to cast their ballot.

"I learned a lot from my father's experience," he said. "And I think the presumption of innocence should be respected."

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Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia. Associated Press reporter Christine Armario in Bogota, Colombia contributed to this report.

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