September 21, 2015 / 1:53 PM / 4 years ago

Petrobras graft scheme origin tied to Lula's ex-chief of staff: prosecutor

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - A massive corruption and political kickback scheme at Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras started with former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s chief of staff, a lead prosecutor said on Monday.

A man walks in front of Brazilian Oil company Petrobras's headquarters in Rio de Janeiro April 11, 2014. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Prosecutor Carlos Fernando dos Santos Lima said the bribery scheme at Petroleo Brasileiro SA, as Petrobras is formally known, had the same origins as Brazil’s previous political scandal, the “mensalao” or big monthly payment scheme, in the offices of Lula’s top aide from 2003-2005, Jose Dirceu.

Dirceu was charged with corruption, money laundering and racketeering on Sept. 4 in the Petrobras case after being arrested in August. He was already under house arrest for the earlier corruption case.

Lima pointed at Dirceu as the mastermind of the graft cases during news conference held in the southern city of Curitiba to announce the arrest of Jose Sobrinho, one of three owners of construction firm Engevix, for allegedly paying bribes to executives of another state-run company.

Lima’s comments on the origins of Brazil’s largest-ever corruption case may bring the scandal closer to Lula, a beloved leader credited with lifting millions of Brazilians out of poverty. Brazilian police are preparing to question Lula about the Petrobras scandal, after getting approval to do so from the Supreme Court.

Neither Lula nor his successor, President Dilma Rousseff, have been charged, and both deny playing any role in the kickback scheme. Rousseff was Lula’s chief of staff after Dirceu.

Federal police were also seeking the arrest of a lobbyist with connections to Jorge Zelada, a former head of Petrobras’ international division who has been charged with corruption. Lima declined to give a name.

Sobrinho is suspected of paying 140 million reais ($35 million) in bribes to executives at Eletronuclear, a subsidiary of state-run electric utility Eletrobras between 2011 and 2013.

Eletronuclear’s long-time head, retired admiral Othon Luiz Pinheiro da Silva, was arrested in July for allegedly taking 4.5 million reais in bribes from engineering firms working on the Angra 3 nuclear power plant.

Dozens of leading Brazilian executives and politicians have been arrested or are under investigation for overcharging Petrobras and other state firms on contracts and using the excess to bribe politicians.

Engevix did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Reporting by Caroline Stauffer; Additional reporting by Silvio Cascione and Anthony Boadle in Brasilia and Pedro Fonseca in Rio de Janeiro Editing by W Simon

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