Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro Threatened by Graft Investigation

RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, was visiting a cathedral in the capital in recent days when a reporter threw out a question: President, why did your wife receive $16,000 from a former aide under investigation for corruption?

The response was aggressive, even for a president known for venting his anger at journalists and critics.

“What I’d like to do,” Mr. Bolsonaro told the reporter, “is smash your mouth in.”

In his two years in office, as Mr. Bolsonaro and his inner circle, including his sons, have become engulfed in a growing number of criminal and legislative investigations, he has lashed out at reporters, investigators and even members of his own cabinet who have dared go against him.

But the case involving the former aide and family confidant — which revolves around the potential theft of public sector wages — has particularly rattled Mr. Bolsonaro’s nerves by putting his wife and his oldest son at the center of a corruption investigation that has developed into one of his biggest personal and political liabilities.

In court filings and leaks to the press, the authorities have outlined their suspicion that starting in 2007, Mr. Queiroz helped the president’s oldest son, Flávio Bolsonaro, steal public funds by pocketing part of the wages of people on his payroll when he was a state representative. Flávio Bolsonaro was elected to the Senate in 2018.

Paulo Emílio Catta Preta, a lawyer representing Mr. Queiroz, said the transactions involving the Bolsonaro family “have absolutely nothing to do with alleged misappropriation of funds.” Flávio Bolsonaro’s attorney did not respond to a request for interviews.

In a recent interview, Vice President Hamilton Mourão defended the administration’s record on corruption, noting that it has not been embroiled in the type of multimillion dollar kickbacks schemes uncovered during previous governments. He deplored the leaking to the press of so much information about the Queiroz investigation, arguing that there is an effort underway to “fabricate a narrative for public opinion.”

“Our perception is that white collar criminals are celebrating,” said Melina Flores, a federal prosecutor who worked on high-profile corruption cases in Brasília, the capital.

Investigators are struggling to make headway. The fight against corruption, which once sparked mass protests, has lost resonance as Brazil faces the world’s second-highest number of deaths from the coronavirus, behind only the United States, and the economic meltdown that followed.

The shift in national focus has allowed the restoration of an unspoken system in which powerful judges and politicians protect each other’s interests, said Carlos Fernando dos Santos Lima, a former prosecutor who worked on politically explosive investigations.

“It’s a return to the old political practice of being shielded by judicial maneuvers,” he said. “In Brazil we have a republic of untouchables and a republic for the rest of the population.”

Against that backdrop, prosecutors in the case have found ways to keep the investigation in the public eye — even as Mr. Queiroz sought to remain out of sight and the Bolsonaro family downplayed his significance.

In June, investigators armed with an arrest warrant for Mr. Queiroz found him in a São Paulo residence that belongs to one of Mr. Bolsonaro’s lawyers, Frederick Wassef.

The arrest, which dominated front pages and news broadcasts for days, was followed by leaks to the press that Mr. Queiroz had wired Michelle Bolsonaro far more money than investigators had initially disclosed. That called into question the president’s account that a single payment disclosed in 2018 was made to repay a debt.

After Mr. Bolsonaro lashed out at the reporter with O Globo newspaper on Sunday, thousands of Brazilians who are critical of the president turned to social media to echo his question: “President, why did your wife receive $16,000 from Fabricio Queiroz?”

The stakes are high for the first lady. Unlike her husband and Flávio Bolsonaro, she is not an elected official, which deprives her of the protections from prosecution that they enjoy.

Just how politically damaging the case will be for Mr. Bolsonaro in the long run is unclear, analysts say. Despite his cavalier handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has contributed to the death of more than 118,000 Brazilians, the president has broadened his support base slightly by giving emergency aid to millions of Brazilians.

“The majority of Brazilians are thinking a lot more about survival than political matters,” Mauro Paulino, the director of the Datafolha polling firm, said. “When survival is your primary concern, corruption becomes a secondary issue.”

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