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Brazilian President Michel Temer speaks with Reuters Editor-in-Chief Steve Adler about the future of Latin America's largest economy as it emerges from recession and a large-scale corruption scandal at a Reuters Newsmaker event in Manhattan, New York City, U.S. September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Ornitz(reuters_tickers)
By Anthony Boadle and Lisandra Paraguassu
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Brazil's President Michel Temer said on Wednesday state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro, a symbol of national sovereignty, would stay in public hands even as his government makes an aggressive privatisation push.
Temer, speaking at a Reuters Newsmaker event in New York, also said that sprawling investigations that have led to corruption charges against scores of powerful figures - including him - show that Brazil's governmental institutions are independent and working well.
The leader of Latin America's largest nation said the fight against corruption was giving investors more confidence to do business in Brazil and this was being reflected in the nation's benchmark stock index trading near all-time highs.
"It was an important and daring decision to open Eletrobras capital to private investors," Temer said, referring to a decision announced last month to sell a controlling stake in Centrais Eletricas Brasileiras SA, Brazil and Latin America's largest utility.
Inviting outside investment in Brazil is part of business-friendly Temer's plan to help the country recover from its deepest recession and to provide much-needed funds to bridge its gaping budget deficit.
However, he ruled out a similar step with the state oil company, known as Petrobras, saying it held "a very strong symbolism" of national sovereignty for Brazilians. "Naturally, we are not thinking of privatising it," he said.
Temer has been charged with graft based on the plea-bargain testimony of the owners of the world's largest meatpacker, JBS SA. They accused him of taking bribes in return for political favours and of conspiring to buy the silence of a witness who could implicate the leader.
Temer has repeatedly said he is innocent of any wrongdoing. He said at the Reuters event he was not concerned about being charged with racketeering and obstruction of justice last week.
"These accusations must be investigated, but I am not worried about this in the least," he said.
Shortly after Temer spoke, a majority of the judges on Brazil's Supreme Court voted to send the new charges against him to the lower house of Congress, which must authorize any trial against a sitting president.
Last month, the chamber blocked an earlier corruption charge against him and Temer and his allies are confident the new ones will also be blocked by the chamber. But they acknowledge that the government's reform agenda will be delayed while it spends time and energy defending the president.
During the wide-ranging, 45-minute discussion at the headquarters of Reuters, Temer also said that the Mercosur trade bloc of South American nations hopes to reach a trade deal with the European Union by the end of the year.
Investors attending the event praised Temer's openness about the corruption cases against him and for his determination to pass a pension reform bill, even though the president gave no indication of when that could happen.
The bill is Temer's main measure to plug the budget deficit that cost Brazil its hard-won investment credit rating grade two years ago. Analysts expect the bill to be watered down to its bare bones to be able to clear Congress this year.
"That's enough to keep markets satisfied and to fend off a number of downgrades in credit ratings," said Alejo Czerwonko, emerging markets strategist at UBS AG.
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle and Lisandra Paraguassu in New York; Writing by Brad Brooks; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Bill Rigby)