Shunning celebrity, judge in Petrobras probe downplays his power

SAO PAULO, July 3 (Reuters) - The judge presiding over Brazil’s largest-ever corruption investigation defended his impartiality on Friday, in a case centered on state-run oil firm Petrobras that has swept up some of the country’s most powerful executives.

In response to criticism that he is close to the prosecution and has approved too many arrests, Federal Judge Sergio Moro said in a rare public appearance he has “acted carefully” and said investigators, not himself, are the case’s true architects.

“As a judge, I act in an extremely reactive manner,” Moro told a packed university auditorium.

Despite his efforts to avoid what he called a “the cult of celebrity,” Moro, an expert in white collar crime, has become the face of a case that aims to change Brazil by ending what prosecutors describe as a “culture of corruption” marked by widespread impunity.

Executives from the nation’s largest engineering firms are accused of price-fixing contracts and overcharging Petroleo Brasileiro SA, as the oil major is formally known, in order to enrich themselves and bribe politicians, mostly those affiliated with President Dilma Rousseff’s Workers’ Party.

In 16 months, Moro has acted swiftly to accept cases against more than 100 suspects. Most recently, he approved the arrest of Marcelo Odebrecht, CEO of Latin America’s largest engineering group, and on Thursday of Jorge Zelada, a former head of Petrobras’ international division. Lawyers for both men called the arrests unnecessary and illegal.

The Supreme Court earlier this year overruled Moro on several preventive detention orders, releasing 10 executives into house arrest.

Asked if he had ever been threatened, Moro paused briefly before responding “I would say not concretely.” The judge declined to elaborate on security measures and did not respond to specific questions about the investigation.

He said the local media’s role in covering the probe had mostly been favorable and defended keeping court proceedings as open as possible. As a student, he said he considered becoming a journalist before settling on law.

Moro also addressed the economic impact of an investigation that has blocked companies from doing business with Petrobras, pushing some into bankruptcy and shedding tens of thousands of jobs.

He said investigators were not responsible for the economic consequences of their cases and asked the audience to consider the status quo alternative: overpriced, graft-ridden public contracts and infrastructure projects often left unfinished.

“In the medium term I think there is an advantage from an economic point of view,” Moro said. (Reporting by Caroline Stauffer; Edited by Mary Milliken and David Gregorio)