Brazil's Bolsonaro defends son against deepening graft probe

RIO DE JANEIRO/BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Friday defended his son from accusations of corruption and attacked the Rio de Janeiro state prosecutors leading an investigation of Senator Flavio Bolsonaro’s alleged money laundering and misuse of public funds.

FILE PHOTO: Brazil’s Senator Flavio Bolsonaro smiles near Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia, Brazil November 21, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino/File Photo

The probe targeting the president’s eldest son threatens one of the core premises of Bolsonaro’s campaign last year: that he alone could clean up the sordid political corruption exposed by Brazil’s sweeping graft investigations in recent years.

Flavio Bolsonaro says he is innocent of the charges, calling the probe a form of political vengeance from bad actors who want to take down his father’s presidency. On Thursday, the senator asked the Supreme Court to halt the investigation.

President Bolsonaro’s first reaction to the prosecutors’ detailed allegations, first reported on Thursday, was to cast doubt on Rio courts and state government, run by his former ally and now right-wing rival, Governor Wilson Witzel.

“They’ve been investigating my son since last year, and they still haven’t found anything,” Bolsonaro said as he left his residence in Brasilia. “Have you ever seen the Rio state prosecutors investigate any person, any corruption, any mistake, any public official from the state? And Rio is Brazil’s most corrupt state.”

Rio prosecutors accuse Flavio Bolsonaro, who was a Rio state lawmaker until he became a federal senator in 2019, of running a phantom employee scheme while in office. They say he diverted part of their salaries to buy two apartments in Rio’s Copacabana neighborhood and a stake in a chocolate store franchise.

The scheme was run by Flavio Bolsonaro’s former driver, Fabrício Queiroz, prosecutors allege in documents seen by Reuters, with 2 million reais flowing through his account.

On Wednesday, Rio authorities carried out 24 raids at properties of the former staff of Flavio Bolsonaro and relatives of President Jair Bolsonaro’s ex-wife. The raids took place after the courts unshelved an investigation that had been frozen by Brazil’s Supreme Court earlier this year.

Prosecutors accuse Flavio Bolsonaro of laundering the proceeds of the scheme through the shop and properties. As proof, they say he booked impossibly high profits from the sale of the apartments. For example, he made a profit of 410,000 reais ($100,379.48) on a property he bought in 2012 and sold just over a year later - a gain of 292%.

They also allege that Flavio Bolsonaro’s stake in the chocolate shop resulted in far higher profits for himself than for his partners.

Reporting by Pedro Fonseca in Rio de Janeiro and Ricardo Brito in Brasilia; Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Brad Haynes, Franklin Paul and Dan Grebler