J&F fine may rise as another Brazil probe continues, paper says

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - A group of Brazilian prosecutors looking into suspected illicit loans to a company controlled by the billionaire Batista family have abstained from joining a recent 10.3 billion-real ($3.1 billion) leniency deal, suggesting the fine could rise further, O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper said on Saturday.

Prosecutors in “Operation Bullish” have spotted sources of potential crimes involving the approval and disbursement of loans worth billions of reais from state development bank BNDES [BNDES.UL] to the Batistas’ investment holding company J&F Investimentos SA, according to Estado.

State loans helped fuel growth at J&F over the past decade, enabling it to assert control of the world’s number-one meatpacker JBS SA while expanding into fashion, dairy production, pulp processing and banking. JBS also is among the world’s top three food firms.

The office of the prosecutor who leads Operation Bullish, Ivan Marx, said he was assessing the terms of the leniency deal signed between J&F, the Batistas and the Prosecutor General’s Office. Marx was not convinced that all crimes committed by J&F and the Batistas have been unearthed, Estado reported, citing people with direct knowledge of Marx’s thinking.

In the event Marx and his team decide to move forward with Operation Bullish, the fine could rise further, Estado said without elaborating. The leniency fine that Brazil levied on J&F on May 31 is the world’s biggest to date.

Emails and calls to the media office of the Brasilia-based Prosecutor General’s Office were not immediately answered. A spokesman for J&F did not immediately respond to a phone call seeking comment.

The leniency accord struck between the Batistas and Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot has been marked by controversy, because of what fellow prosecutors and lawyers have seen as rather lax penalties.

Brothers Joesley and Wesley Batista, members of the family that controls the group, admitted to spending 600 million reais to bribe nearly 1,900 politicians in recent years. Part of the testimonies in the plea deal implicated President Michel Temer, whom Joesley accused of working to obstruct a major corruption probe. Temer denies the accusations.

Currently, J&F and the Batistas are involved in five different investigations apart from Operation Bullish.

Reporting by Guillermo Parra-Bernal; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama