‘A Family Business:’ graft investigation threatens Brazil’s Bolsonaro
01 Sep 2020

Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, was visiting a cathedral in the capital in recent days when a reporter threw out a question: President, why did your wife receive $16,000 from a former aide under investigation for corruption?

The response was aggressive, even for a president known for venting his anger at journalists and critics.

“What I’d like to do,” Mr. Bolsonaro told the reporter, “is smash your mouth in.”

In his two years in office, as Mr. Bolsonaro and his inner circle, including his sons, have become engulfed in a growing number of criminal and legislative investigations, he has lashed out at reporters, investigators and even members of his own cabinet who have dared go against him.

But the case involving the former aide and family confidant — which revolves around the potential theft of public sector wages — has particularly rattled Mr. Bolsonaro’s nerves by putting his wife and his oldest son at the center of a corruption investigation that has developed into one of his biggest personal and political liabilities.

The expanding set of inquiries into the president and his family are testing the independence and strength of the justice system in one of the world’s largest democracies, with the largest economy in the southern hemisphere. Just a few years ago, Brazil’s judiciary earned global accolades for taking down powerful officials and business titans in an anti-corruption crusade that upended the political establishment.

Now Mr. Bolsonaro, whose astonishing rise from the fringes of far-right politics to the presidency was largely propelled by a promise to root out graft and crime, stands accused of undermining the rule of law, as the scandals inch ever closer to the presidential palace.

Experts say the evidence that has come to light so far in the case of the former aide, Fabrício Queiroz, suggests the Bolsonaro family partook in a scheme known as rachadinha, which is common in the lower rungs of politics in Brazil. It involves siphoning off taxpayer money by keeping ghost employees on payroll or hiring people who agree to kick back a share of their salary to the boss.

“The suspicion is that this was a family business that lasted many years and moved a lot of money,” Bruno Brandão, the executive director of Transparency International in Brazil, said of the graft scheme involving the former aide. “These suppositions are very serious, corroborated by solid evidence, in an investigation that is based on highly irregular financial transactions.”

In court filings and leaks to the press, the authorities have outlined their suspicion that starting in 2007, Mr. Queiroz helped the president’s oldest son, Flávio Bolsonaro, steal public funds by pocketing part of the wages of people on his payroll when he was a state representative. Flávio Bolsonaro was elected to the Senate in 2018.

Between 2011 and 2016, Mr. Queiroz funneled thousands of dollars to the president’s wife, Michelle Bolsonaro, in transactions neither of them can explain. Prosecutors also believe deposits made to the president’s son might be connected to the scheme.

Drawing on a vast dossier of financial records, investigators are trying to determine whether the irregular cash flow at a chocolate shop Flávio Bolsonaro bought in 2015, and a series of real estate purchases he made in cash, amount to money laundering.

By Ernesto Londoño, Manuela Andreoni and Letícia Casado, The New York Times, 28 August 2020

Read more at The New York Times

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