Brazil's incoming environment minister found guilty of improper conduct

FILE PHOTO: Ricardo Salles, incoming minister of the environment, is seen at the ceremony of delivering the certificate acknowledging the victory of the presidential election to Jair Bolsonaro (not pictured) in Brasilia, Brazil December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Adriano Machado/File Photo

BRASILIA (Reuters) - A Brazilian court has convicted President-elect Jair Bolsonaro’s pick for environment minister of “administrative impropriety” while he was the head of a Sao Paulo state environmental agency in 2016.

Judge Fausto Jose Martins Seabra in Sao Paulo found Ricardo Salles guilty of infractions including altering maps in a environmental protection plan to benefit mining companies when he was the state’s environment secretary, according to the decision posted late on Wednesday.

Salles, who has been named as Brazil’s next environment minister after Bolsonaro assumes office on Jan. 1, told Reuters on Thursday that he did not agree with the ruling and would appeal.

“I understand there was no impropriety at all and my lawyers will appeal at the opportune moment,” he said, adding that while the ruling found issues with the protection plan, it did not indicate that there had been environmental damage or personal gain.

Bolsonaro was elected with strong backing from farmers, and comments he made on the campaign trail - such as complaining about the current regime of fines for environmental infractions - have led to fears that the country will backtrack on protecting the environment.

Groups like Greenpeace and the Climate Observatory have criticized Salles’ appointment, citing his alignment with rural interests that they say would essentially see the environmental ministry subordinated to the agriculture ministry.

Salles said in an interview with Reuters earlier this month that as minister he would seek to strike a balance between environmental protections and economic development.

The conviction strips him of the right to stand for office for three years, but Salles said that would not interfere with his ability to become a minister, which is not an elected position.

Bolsonaro representatives did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Reporting by Jake Spring, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien